BY DANA THOMAS
When American politician and author Stacey Abrams was an 18-year-old freshman at Spelman College, a historically Black women’s university in Atlanta, Georgia, she laid out her life goals in a spreadsheet. She divided the document into three headings: “Business, Politics, and Ancillary – being love life and other ambitions that can feed into quality of life,” the now-47-year-old explained to me this summer during a Zoom interview from her office in Atlanta.
Among the goals Abrams put down back then:
- Bestselling novelist by 24
- Millionaire CEO by 30
- Atlanta mayor by 35
Stacey Abrams did well on that first point: in 2001, at the age of 27, she published her first novel, Rules of Engagement, a James Bond-inspired potboiler about a Black female chemical physicist-turned-spy. She wrote it under the pseudonym Selena Montgomery, so as not to distract from her budding political career. Alas, it didn’t reach bestseller status back then, but she has since penned seven more romance novels as Montgomery; one, Never Tell, has been picked up by CBS Television. And under her own name, she has put out two political non-fiction bestsellers – Our Time Is Now and Lead from the Outside – as well as a legal thriller, While Justice Sleeps. Issued last May, While Justice Sleeps topped the New York Times’s fiction bestseller list, and is also in development as a TV series via Working Title Television and NBCUniversal.
Millionaire CEO? Stacey Abrams achieved the chief executive half a year early: in 2003, at 29, she founded a legal consultancy firm, known as Sage Works, which has counted as clients the Atlanta Dream, a Women’s National Basketball Association team. Abrams is mum on the millionaire part – though, in 2018, she spoke publicly and frankly about her debt. Maybe the TV series will change her fortunes.
Mayor? She skipped over that. Instead, after graduating from Spelman, magna cum laude, Stacey Abramss earned a masters of public affairs from the University of Texas, a doctor of juris from Yale, and became a tax attorney. This specialisation has helped her greatly in public service. She was appointed deputy city attorney for Atlanta in 2003, then, three years later, ran for – and won – a seat in Georgia’s House of Representatives.
In 2010, Stacey Abrams became the General Assembly’s minority leader. During her tenure, she picked apart a Republican proposal that purported to cut taxes. She showed it actually increased them, arguing the bill would be the largest tax increase in the state’s history; it ultimately failed. In 2018, she stood for governor – the first Black woman to win an American gubernatorial primary for a major political party. She lost by 55,000 votes to Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, Brian P Kemp, in an election fraught with charges of voter suppression, conflict of interest, and election law violations.
The loss catapulted Abrams into the national political spotlight. And it gave her a new mission, one that may be more impactful than any policy she could have put forth as governor: she founded Fair Fight Action, an Atlanta-based national organisation that combats voter suppression.
“Voter suppression – from getting on the rolls to being allowed to vote to having those votes count – is real,” she writes in her bio-manifesto Our Time Is Now, published in 2020. “Today, the ones barring access have shifted from using billy clubs and hoses to using convoluted rules to make it harder to register and stay on the rolls, cast a ballot, or have that ballot counted.”
So impactful has Fair Fight been, President Joe Biden chose to celebrate his first 100 days in office by hosting a drive-in rally in Atlanta, where he told the crowd: “Stacey Abrams can be anything she wants to be, from whatever she chooses to president.” He added: “Nobody, nobody, in America has done more for the right to vote than Stacey.”
None of this – not the spreadsheet, nor the career – is surprising, once you learn Abrams’s background. She was born in Wisconsin in 1973, the second of six children of Robert and Carolyn Abrams, and raised in Gulfport, Mississippi, an hour’s drive east from New Orleans. Her great-grandparents were enslaved. Her grandfather was a Second World War veteran, who, upon his return home, was subjected to the South’s segregation laws. Her parents, as teens, were active in the Civil Rights Movement; her father was arrested in 1964 for fighting for Black suffrage in his hometown.
When Stacey Abrams was a child, her father was “a dyslexic shipyard worker”, and her mother was “an underpaid librarian”, she writes in Our Time Is Now. “Since my parents couldn’t afford daycare, we would sleep in the library’s stacks after school,” she told me during the Zoom interview. Her older sister Andrea taught her to read at three. “Andrea liked to play teacher and I was a very quick study,” Abrams said.
The family moved to Atlanta, where her parents earned their graduate degrees from Emory University and became Methodist ministers. “I am the daughter of two people who, in their very different ways, are relentless about trying to do good,” she said. “They both always told us: ‘If you see a problem, your job is to fix it. It’s not enough to simply complain.’”
“That line in the Bible, in Mark, about how the poor will always be among us? There are those who take it as an excuse,” she continued. “I see it as a call to action. Jesus wasn’t saying it’s going to happen. He’s telling you: you got to do something about it. Otherwise, they’re always going to be among you.”
Stacey Abrams was active in civil rights as a Spelman student. In 1992, she and fellow protestors burned the Georgia state flag on the steps of the state Capitol. (“Being my parents’ child, I, of course, followed the law and secured a permit,” she writes in Our Time Is Now.) A year later, when she was 19, she was tapped by a group of civil rights leaders to speak at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, for the 30th anniversary of the March on Washington. From there, came her education and her legal career. But the pull back to public service, civil rights, and voter rights was too strong – and it is propelling her higher and higher in American political life.
There was talk last year that she was on Joe Biden’s shortlist for vice presidential running mate – a position that went to then-California senator Kamala Harris. There is talk now that Abrams will re-run for Georgia governor, or perhaps US senator. And, eventually, for president. She still updates that spreadsheet – marking when goals are achieved; pushing back deadlines; adding new objectives. “I still have political ambitions,” she admitted. “But I’ve not figured out what the pathway is.” As for the Ancillary column, the rather busy bachelorette confessed: “I would love to start dating.”