For those entranced by the de Blasio–family fairy tale, in which a tall, goofy white dude married to a tiny, black former lesbian runs for mayor of a city managed for a dozen years by a plutocrat inhospitable to the couple’s leftist politics, then improbably wins, in a landslide, thanks in part to a very modern family campaign portrait showcasing two teenage children, both of whom have eye-catching hair, the political theater of May 6 seemed so exemplary as to be almost surreal. Outside Washington, D.C., before a standing ovation of mental-health professionals, the de Blasios’ daughter, Chiara, who is 19, received an award of recognition from the outgoing secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius. The recognition was for her having spoken out: At Christmastime, just before her father was inaugurated and with the support of his campaign staff, Chiara had recorded a confessional YouTube clip in which she described herself as a pot and alcohol abuser. On the morning of the press conference, she published a wrenching essay describing her disease: years of depression and anxiety leading to regular reliance on substances. Even now, Chiara wrote, in recovery, she has to make herself “get out of bed even when I really, really don’t want to.”
In a supremely self-conscious display of parental support, Bill de Blasio and Chirlane McCray introduced their daughter to the crowd, expressing admiration for her courage and personal strength. “This is a very special day for our family,” said McCray, reading from a teleprompter. “I am not just proud of her, I am in awe.” Mayor de Blasio stood by his wife, nodding fondly, and when she was done, they shared a little arm squeeze. Then their daughter came out in a navy dress, and the trio took time out for what in my house is called “a family hug.” Chiara spoke for just a few moments, and she was smiling—glowing in the spotlight. But she trembled like a flower in the breeze.
It was all very authentic, and therefore gripping—unprecedented candor from a political family of unprecedented symbolic dynamism. No one knows better than de Blasio himself the degree to which his charismatic big-tent family had made him mayor—had boosted his unlikely ascent during a crowded Democratic primary and elevated him, a career local pol with a left-of-left orientation, into not just an electoral inevitability but a major figure on the national stage. And into something more, too: by virtue of that family, a seeming sentinel of a new political era, defined not just by the class politics the de Blasios share with Elizabeth Warren but also by the cultural ones they embody better than any diversity ad—black, white, gay, straight, Afroed and ear-gauged, all under one roof, a hologram of a liberal utopia, yes, but also regular Joes, with a plain vinyl-sided house in Brooklyn and gym memberships at the Y, two hardworking parents and their smart, mouthy kids, looking to each other first and last for mutual love and support. All of which makes it impossible not to wonder, watching Chiara this month or Dante during the campaign, to what extent this was simply an enviably positive, progressive family living out loud, celebrating its private loves and personal triumphs for all to see. And to what extent we were admiring a politically deft performance.
The best explanation for Chiara’s appearance was standing right beside her that day—a diminutive, dark-skinned woman with braids, who once wore a nose ring only slightly less ostentatious than her daughter’s, and who did something very similar when she herself was young, publishing a roughly 5,000-word declaration in Essence titled “I Am a Lesbian,” aimed at making other queer women of color feel less alone.
That essay—passionate, radical, subaltern, queer—is an unusual fact in the biography of a political spouse, but the gesture it contains is at the very heart of McCray’s worldview, which has come to govern her household, which has come to govern the city. McCray came of age at a time and in a place when speaking out about who you are, making declarations of identity despite convention and in defiance of taboos, was the bravest thing a person—in particular, a black woman—could do. Over the course of her adult life, spent in and out and on the margins of the public sphere, identity politics has become something of a pejorative term, the name given to demeaning performances of political victimhood, but for McCray and her contemporaries it has always been an imperative, the purest kind of activism, the most powerful weapon against injustice, and a sort of prerequisite for political engagement of any kind: How else does one make one’s needs known, if not by first making oneself heard? “Be the truth,” she exhorted in a poem she posted to Tumblr in April, “the knife / that cuts through the lies.” For her, self-expression is politics just as much as acts of government or legislation are, even in a city that can seem deracinated by corporatist values. Perhaps more so, since McCray believes in the power of political symbolism to awaken, agitate, and ennoble. In that way, she is both a throwback to an earlier era and an anachronism who has found an unlikely second moment. For her, political theater is not theater, it is politics proper—the way a society expresses its values and the way it shapes those values, in the image of ideal future generations who grow to model them.