It's no secret that Kamala Harris' Democratic Vice Presidential nomination and win is historical, but it holds extra special meaning for her sisters of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated. AKA is the first established Black Greek Letter Organization for women, founded at Howard University in 1908. Harris, a proud alumna of Howard, is a 1986 initiate of the school's Alpha Chapter. Many members of the organization wear pearls — including Harris, who often pairs her tailored pantsuits with a strand — as they represent the sorority's 20 founders and incorporators .
Dr. Elaine Witter, DDS, one of Vice-President Harris' Alpha Chapter co-initiates (or "line sister"), knows the power of pearls firsthand. Like Harris, the Maryland-area dentist — who graduated from the College of Nursing in 1988 and the College of Dentistry in 1998 — wears them on a consistent basis. They give her confidence, they elevate her looks with elegance, and, most importantly, they remind her of her sisters.
Ahead, read about Witter's time at Howard, her personal connection to the gemstone, and her thoughts on Harris' journey from The Yard to the White House. (As told to Khalea Underwood)
In my family, going to Howard University is like a tradition. My husband is a Howard alum, so are my dad and brother, cousins, and uncles. Howard is The Mecca. It was a place where I felt like I would be nurtured and where people would be invested in my success as much as their own. It was where I could be who I am and celebrate that. My daughter is a high school senior, and it's her number one pick, too. Hopefully we’ll have yet another alum in the family very soon.
Howard is a place where people would be invested in my success as much as their own.
People might think that if you go to a historically Black college or university, the experience could be monolithic. It's not like that at all. The campus is very diverse, with people from all over the country and different parts of the world. When I went to Howard, it was the '80s, and you could identify people by their style of dress. You know that the Californians were wearing penny loafers without any socks. The New Yorkers wore fur jackets and thick gold chains. The Philly crowd had Adidas sweatsuits like Run DMC — campus was so full of flavor. I myself had more of a preppy style, which was Izods, Polo shirts, Sperrys — and pearls, always.
I'm a June baby, so pearls are my birthstone. I always loved wearing them long before going to college, even though there was other trendier jewelry to try. When I got older, I learned that they were worn by royalty. Coco Chanel wore faux pearls. They were beautiful and accessible, and always a part of my personal style.
Once I got to Howard, I saw that pearls weren't considered old-fashioned. They were very much in style. Going to Howard, in fact, gave me the license to make them cooler. With my sorority, the pearls are a nod to our founders and incorporators, which is an additional reason for them to be near and dear to me. While being initiated into the sorority, we wore little pearl stud earrings while going through the process. I hope that Kamala's pearls are a nod to her sorority sisters. They represent that solidarity.
I think Kamala wears pearls because she feels powerful and feminine. That's how I feel.
I notice Kamala wears several signature pairs of pearls, too — she has a black pair of South Sea pearls with a pair of matching earrings. She’s [also] got a cream-colored pair with a gold chain. I think she wears those because she feels powerful and feminine. That's how I feel when I wear them. Pearls can light up your face and give you a glow. I feel very confident in them.
While I watch Kamala's campaign, I feel so much pride. She is consistent, and hasn't changed from our time in undergrad up until now. You see that big smile of hers? In any picture of her from college, she has a smile on her face. She loves to smile, and is the kind of person that draws you in. Kamala has never been the type to exclude you because you're not a member of a particular organization or group. She's smart and tough. And she still keeps in touch with our line. I think she’s a little bit busy these days, but throughout the years, she still makes time for us. Whenever she can come to homecoming or our celebrations, she can.
Even though our line sisters are socially distant, we’re still able to relish in the moment. We still have Zoom meetings and, we text very heavily. Can we hug and embrace physically? We can’t. But I think Kamala's candidacy has given us an additional reason to connect even greater during the pandemic. We’ll be celebrating our 35th anniversary next homecoming. We're not going to let coronavirus put a chink in our armor.
Kamala's run represents a message: That we don't have to limit ourselves.
I almost can’t put my elation for Kamala into words. I’m excited for her, personally. I’m excited for women collectively. I’m excited for women of color specifically. I’m excited for the example that she’s setting for young girls like my daughter. She shows that you can achieve without limits. Her run represents a message: We don't have to limit ourselves. We don't have to feel constrained or confined by someone else’s opinion on what we can achieve.
That message, even though it’s important for women my age, is so important for future generations. They can look up to look at her as an example and say 'You know what? This is something that I can do.' When you look at our current climate, politically and socially, it can be a little disheartening for a young person. Kamala gives a message of hope that it doesn’t matter what's going on around you. Just stay the course, live your dreams, do the hard work, and you’re going to get there.
This story was originally published on Oct. 20, 2020.
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