The First and Only

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February 21 marked what would have been the 75th birthday of late Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, had she not passed away in 1996 at the tragically young age of 59. It goes without saying—or should—that Jordan was the first African-American woman ever elected (in 1966) to the Texas State Senate, and the first African-American woman the South ever elected (in 1972) to the U.S. House of Representatives. She was also the first woman the state of Texas ever elected to Congress. President Clinton wanted her to become the first African-American woman on the Supreme Court, though advanced multiple sclerosis forced her to decline. Hell, she was even the first African-American woman to be buried in the Texas State Cemetery. As Molly Ivins said, “the first and only came before Barbara Jordan’s name so often that it almost seemed like a permanent title.”

And yet, much like her great friend, former Gov. Ann Richards, it isn’t as a path-breaker that Jordan is best remembered. It’s as an inspiration. It’s for her ability to awaken pride in citizenship through her intelligence and eloquence and that much-sung “magisterial dignity” she carried like a flaming sword and wore like a suit of magic armor, capable of deflecting the kind of insufferable bullshit that women and people of color always have to put up with.

It may, or may not, surprise you to learn that this bullshit didn’t end with Jordan’s electoral victories, that she was constantly confronted with the vilest type of hate speech, even from her own congressional colleagues. Her ability to transcend not merely this ugly brand of schoolyard bullying, but Southern racism generally, and the poverty in which she was raised (in Houston’s 5th Ward)—and multiple sclerosis—seemed miraculous. People with exceptional gifts often succeed in spite of prejudice, but few do so with the elegance and integrity that Barbara Jordan projected. (And how can one describe that marvelous contralto voice, really? She sounded like justice; like single-barrel bourbon; like the bass fiddle of the heavenly choir. One feels that, if the Statue of Liberty could talk, she’d sound just like Barbara Jordan.) She outclassed her opponents, and triumphed through grace. And because of that grace, she became, to quote Jordan’s biographer Mary Beth Rogers, “the first African-American elected official to become an American hero.” Ivins once quipped that “When Hollywood needs somebody to play the role of God Almighty, they ought to get Barbara Jordan.”

Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, who knows a thing or two about transcending prejudice herself, has said that “by being Barbara Jordan, she made that House a very different place, and she inspired many women to believe that they could come to that place.”

But you needn’t be an African American or a woman to follow in her footsteps. In fact, one of the most remarkable things about Barbara Jordan is that by being so proudly and distinctly herself; by walking so tall as a woman and a black person, as a person of humble background and, later, as a chronically ill person, she put a little starch in all of our collars. Folks whose only resemblance to Jordan is a shared sense of un-belonging feel an intimate kinship with her. I, personally, as a Texan—and, most especially, as a gay person—feel tremendous pride in her presence and accomplishments. She’s one of the great American reminders that there’s nothing more powerful than being unapologetically yourself.

And yet, despite her glorious gift for self-expression, Jordan was—to the public, at least—unknowable. Jordan’s closest friends insist that her stateliness slipped a bit in private, and that she could be hilarious, in a wry, Gielgud-ian sort of way. Her best friend in Congress was “Goodtime” Charlie Wilson, of all people, the freewheeling East Texan who fancied himself as a Stetson-topped James Bond. Together, the pair sponsored Texas’ Equal Rights Amendment. Once, at a formal dinner, Frank Erwin was in his cups (a not uncommon occurrence) and spilled Cutty Sark all over Jordan’s gold sequined gown. “Well, Frank,” Jordan’s reported as saying, “I’m just glad you’re not hooked on Blood-y Mary-ys.”  

Mary Beth Rogers writes that, towards the end of her life, Jordan told friend Liz Carpenter, “I believe that I have a spirit that is not going to disappear. I believe that my body will die and disintegrate … the skin and bones will go back to dust, but the spirit … the ‘isness’ of me, I feel will live.” Fifteen years after her death, it’s clear that the “isness” of Barbara Jordan isn’t going anywhere. Thank God and Greyhound.

 

Read about the Barbara Jordan Freedom Foundation, a newly formed non-profit organization that aims to carry on Jordan’s work in the areas of education and racial justice.

Contributing writer Robert Leleux is the author of two books, The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy and The Living End: A Memoir of Forgetting and Forgiving.