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Black America: Why I Vote

And So Should You

Image from GovInfo

Emancipation came down to two votes—two. Two votes that no black person in this country could cast. We had to depend on the goodwill and determination of a group of men to vote for what is right and not what was politically expedient or in their own self-interest. And let’s face it, for white men, white privilege in 1863 was a big deal. It was the only way that they could rise to whatever heights economically, politically, and socially without any competition from any woman or men of color.

It happened though—two votes. But I didn’t know that. I don’t recall ever learning that in school. I don’t remember it being emphasized in my Ohio History class in the 7th grade despite the fact that the man who wrote, advocated, and helped push through the 13th amendment that abolished slavery in the US and freed my family on both sides of my family tree was raised in Ohio, in my little hometown; Senator James Ashley of the Great State of Ohio.

An Embarrassing Story About Me

In the words of Blanche Devereaux on The Golden Girls, “I never make up stories where I come out looking bad.” But I will tell you this embarrassing story about me—the girl who her friends called Sista Souljah in high school because of my political passion. I started out a news junkie but I didn’t know nearly enough about history.

Me as Birthday Bear at Age 8

I’ve always been a political junkie. My dad is a political junkie and I’m a daddy’s girl, so. Every morning in our house as we were getting ready for school, the living room TV would be blasting Washington Journal on C-Span and so would my parent’s bedroom TV. In the evenings I would sit on the floor in front of the TV watching Crossfire with my dad—mainly because it was hilarious to see “grownups” acting so crazy; screaming and spitting at each other while my dad would be on the other side of the screen yelling at them from his rocking chair. And if it was Sunday morning in my house growing up, it was Meet the Press with my beloved Tim Russert.

I knew what was going on in the news of the day. Hell, I was chairman of elections for our middle school mock election between Reagan and Dukakis. Then one day in American History class, something happened that changed me from that day on. We got to a section of the book that talked about the contributions of black people in America. It was two pages long. There was a slave on the left page and Martin Luther King, Jr. on the right page. Our 400 year history told in two pages, but American history, well that took about 300 something pages, but I digress.

On the left-hand page there was the picture of a slave. There was a passage in the text that quoted a poem that a “slave girl” had written. It was full of dis and dese, really broken English—as my dad would say, plantation talk. Then I noticed that practically every kid in my all white school but me and one other black kid class turned and looked at me with pity eyes. I was embarrassed. I could hear all of them in their heads saying, ‘Slave!’ I thought to myself, ‘I’m not a slave. I don’t talk like that.’

"Slave!"

Newly Freed Slaves Hold Voting Drive in 1868

Later that evening when we were eating dinner it came up. We grew up eating dinner at the table together, my parents, me and my brother and sister. They would talk about their day, and then they would ask us about ours. My brother and I were always going for laughs in our tales of the day, so I brought up my American History class.

I told them the story and about how embarrassed I was. I imitated the white kids rubber necking to stare me down and I exaggerated a low growling “slave!” My mom chuckled, my brother and sister started cracking up, I was laughing, but my dad who I thought would be entertained didn’t laugh. He just looked at me and asked, “Why were you embarrassed?”

I said, “Because they looked at me like I was a slave. I’m not a slave, I don’t talk like that.”

Then my dad said, “Do you know that she would have been killed just for knowing how to read and write?” No I didn’t. That little tidbit wasn’t on those two pages of black history in our American history books. He told me to go to the library and read the autobiography of Frederick Douglass. And when my dad said stuff like that, it wasn’t a suggestion—he literally meant go to the library and read the book because he was going to ask me about it.

A Lot to Be Proud Of

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass anchors an 1883 chromolithograph of “distinguished colored men.” Among those featured are Representatives Robert Elliott and Joseph Rainey of South Carolina, John Langston of Virginia, and Senator Blanche Bruce of Mississippi. The image also includes Henry Highland Garnet, minister at Washington’s Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church. He became the first African American to speak in the House Chamber when he addressed a crowd of Sunday worshippers on February 12, 1865. Image courtesy of library of congress

I played basketball and the library is where I went to wait for my dad to pick me up after practice anyway so I did. I read the autobiography of Frederick Douglass shocked, appalled, in disbelief about how much I didn’t know about that history because deep down I was embarrassed and didn’t want to be associated with slaves and slavery.

Boy was that a revelation about this country and about myself. I didn’t stop at Frederick Douglass’ book. I became voracious about learning more about that whole period. I read textbooks and science books from the 1700s and 1800s—learned where the word “negro” came from. For centuries in this country white kids were taught that black people were a different species altogether; that we belonged to the “negroid” species, just one rung above apes.

Growing up my dad and other black adults would say to us, especially on MLKJ Day, “Be black and proud!” I used to think, ‘Proud about what? Why should we be proud?’ I soon learned. I thought about that slave woman’s poem. Not only had she taught herself somewhat how to read and write under pain of death, she was writing on a higher order of thinking—writing poetry, creating art. She wasn’t stupid. I shouldn’t be embarrassed. Imagine what she could have been if she wasn’t oppressed in slavery!

It changed my whole way of thinking. Then I realized something else. As I read about Dredd Scott shipping himself up north in a shipping crate and then suing for his freedom; as I read about the three-fifths clause in the Constitution that only counted black people as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of increasing legislative power for southern whites in Congress; As I read about Plessey versus Ferguson, the Supreme Court ruling that made Jim Crow legal for three quarters of a century, and the awful terror that destroyed so many black men and women during reconstruction at the end of the Civil War one thing became crystal clear to me:

Every single right that I have, that all people of color have in this country came down to just a few votes; votes that we couldn’t cast for ourselves. Votes that we had to hope would happen on our behalf at the hands of people who really had nothing to gain from their vote other than justice.

Depending on the Kindness of Strangers for Our Freedom

Image from the movie To Kill a Mockingbird

Even the right to vote which passed in 1964 was pushed by a southern Democrat who never ran on Civil Rights and was known to think that JFK was a little too acquiescent to Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. He worked his ass off, twisted arms, actually said the phrase “we shall overcome” in a State of the Union address on the floor of Congress, acknowledging for the first time, a president of the United States of America acknowledging our right to vote and to equality in this country.

So yeah, with all of that knowledge, I did become Sista Souljah because I also saw how there were forces in power that were steady trying to work to silence our right to vote, our freedoms: Drug laws that disproportionately affect black men, resulting in felonies and states passing laws that state that those with felonies can no longer vote. Voting lines so long in black communities that voting on election day meant hours standing in line waiting for new ballots, waiting for working machines, waiting, waiting, and waiting to vote.

And then a presidential election happened that put a southern sympathizer in office. He ordered Union troops out of the south. It would be like the US getting out of Nazi Germany only three years after the war when SS and Gestapo were still trying to wiggle back into German society. It would be like us leaving Japan three years after they bombed Pearl Harbor.

Andrew Johnson left all of those newly freed black people at the mercy of a hateful, vengeful, white mob that was hell bent on putting them back in their place. Why? Because they still didn’t have a say so in who would be president. Because the Klan since 1866 had been targeting outspoken and vocal black leaders who were helping to get black people registered and killing them at will.

Worse Than Slavery

Image from FacingSouth

They terrorized freedmen and women until it just wasn’t safe to exercise the right to vote. The footage from the Civil Rights era—that is nothing compared to the total lawlessness that newly freed blacks faced in the south—and yet, they still risked their lives and limbs to vote, to fight back, to protect their families until decades of death and destruction wore them down and they settled into Jim Crow.

It wasn’t until the Second World War when southern black men were allowed to fight in the US Army as something other than cooks. They were able to show their metal and served gallantly, helped to turn the tide and win the war. In Italy and France and Germany, they cheered the black soldiers and thanked them equally as they did white soldiers.

To the liberated Europeans, they were all simply Americans saving them from the Nazi menace. Then they came back home to the US and faced the same hatred and discrimination that they had before they served this nation of theirs. But something about their experiences in Europe would not let them just take it anymore.

Ending a Rebellion Takes Political Soldiers

Black Union Soldiers from Massachusetts

‘We were drafted and volunteered to fight for this country to liberate the Europeans—we need to fight here for our liberation.’ That’s what started the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s.

But just like during post reconstruction, we took our eyes off of the ball. The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1964. The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1965. Neither has been ratified by the states and made part of the Constitution so those rights have to be renewed every 25 years and it had been until 2013 when the Republican-held Congress refused to renew Section 4.

Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act forced states with a history of racial discrimination in elections to plead their case before a DC circuit court or the Attorney General of the US before they could make changes to their voting laws. They had to prove that the changes were not racially motivated. It also gave the federal government power to intervene in places where voters’ rights were being violated.

They argued that the law was old; that those states no longer need the federal government to protect the vote; that they wouldn’t do anything to racially discriminate now. Except that they are in Texas and Alabama and Georgia and many of the states that were under the jurisdiction of Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act.

The New Poll Tax of 2018

Just like black people were forced to pay a poll tax to vote (in 2018 drive 50 miles and pay for a specific kind of ID), or had to guess the number of marbles in a jar in order to vote (in 2018 Texas if your middle initial is on your voting registration but not on your driver’s license, it’s not a match, you can’t vote), and many other forms of intimidation, it is happening now.

“…before the Shelby County v. Holder decision—[Section 4 was] a key part of the Voting Rights Act, because it provided a formula for the federal government to use in identifying jurisdictions with problematic histories of racial discrimination.

As of 2013, this formula classified Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia, as well as parts of California, Florida, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, and South Dakota, as qualifying.” (Vox, 2016)

I vote because we can never take our eyes off of the ball in America. Until all of the old white bigots in this country are no longer here, there will be a portion of our population that thinks that their racially distorted view of the world is the right one and will continue to fight for their supremacy over all other races in this country.

And now they are teaching their kids, passing it down like a genetic trait; holding up little kids at hate filled rallies just like a generation ago, they would take their kids to watch a lynching. This is the tradition that they are trying to uphold. With our vote, we can end it once and for all. I’ve never known a more important moment in my lifetime than this one and I’ve been able to legally vote and have voted in every election since 1994.

Vote for Your Life

William Richardson (Left) gave NAACP worker Earl Carter the name of people still waiting in line on 25th Street in Richmond when voter registration ended for the day on Oct. 3, 1964.

This election is not a partisan one or over policy issues. This is a vote to squash the southern rebellion once again. It is our chance to end the southern coup that has partnered with the Russians to seize and hold power in this country indefinitely. This is our chance to cast the vote for ourselves, for a future that isn’t bound to their old, archaic way of thinking.

For this vote I am thankful to every single member of my family who came before me who had to suffer through fear, rape, hate, and danger so that I could live as one among the freest generation of women and black people ever in our nation’s history. I will not waste it. I am voting for a blue tsunami. A super check on this right wing cabal that is too close to creating an America in the image of their southern forebears and one that my forebears would be devastated to see come to pass today.

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