Opinion: What black voters, like my great-grandfather, taught me

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Editor’s note: Elizabeth Alexander is a poet, scholar, and president of the Mellon Foundation, the nation’s largest arts, culture, and humanities funder. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. See more opinion on CNN.



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On Tuesday, November 8, we head to the polls to vote in our country’s midterm elections. More than 235 million of us will be eligible to participate in this fundamental exercise in good US governance, but midterm election data suggests that only about half that number is likely to vote.

Concerns about election security, frustration over gerrymandering, and desperation over federal and state voting seats have led many to question whether it’s worth voting. You yourself may have already concluded, considering these challenges to American suffrage, that voting or not ultimately doesn’t matter.

It is important.

The vote is more important than any election – midterm, presidential, municipal, statewide or otherwise. It’s an effort that is more verbose, less substantive – more “I vote” and “we vote”, than “my vote” or “your vote”. The vote requires a collective exercise, so that election by election, year by year, the vote continues to exist.

What we face in this midterm election, and every election, is not just whether our votes will make a difference in our democracy. It is about whether our votes will manifest our democracy.

When we enter the voting booth on November 8, we will do more than select a preferred candidate, proposal or ballot measure. What we will do is undertake an act of stewardship, sacred in its meaning, of the right to vote itself.

We will defend this right so that we can then pass it, like a torch, from one American generation to another, and so that we can exercise it on behalf of those of our current generation who cannot: those who are incarcerated, those who are not citizens, those who are too young, those who are too infirm.

The candidates and causes we support will not always prevail. But our victories and our defeats are separate from our work as stewards of the vote. During Reconstruction in the American South, this distinction was well understood among black voters who had been enslaved and disenfranchised before the Civil War. I reflect on this in my poem, “The Family Vote”:

“Before my people are required to answer
Questions that cannot be voted on:

How many bubbles in a bar of soap?
How many candies fill a jar?
Can you prove your grandfather voted?

There was a time when black men could vote
and black women could not, 1870, five years
free, and that vote belonged to the family.

Our families had been sold and scattered,
stained, burnt, unraveled. We reformed.

The vote was not personal property.
The vote did not belong to one.
There was no “mine”: the family vote.

It was in my own family that I first learned how the act of voting is the manifestation of democracy. For years, my parents and I voted at the same polling place in our neighborhood. No matter how early I arrived to vote, no matter how contested my father’s movement was in his later years, I could see from their signatures in the ballot book that they had always preceded.

This unwavering commitment has since been passed on to my own children, who are now old enough to vote themselves. They know the whole story of how they got that right. They too have learned the lessons that history teaches.

My mother still has in her possession the voter card that belonged to her grandfather. At the turn of the 20th century, he owned a small haberdashery business in Selma, Alabama, where he also registered to vote. As the Equal Justice Initiative’s meticulous records of lynchings across the South during those decades reveal, Selma was not a safe place for black men to exercise their right to vote. In 1906, my maternal great-grandfather moved to Birmingham, then Washington, DC. The voter’s card accompanied him.

Today, in the aftermath of January 6, 2021, as violent insurgents attempted to forcibly prevent the ratification of the legitimate results of the 2020 presidential election, “vote” is an urgent imperative that we must continue to meet. at the ballot box. We vote and we resist disenfranchisement. We vote and we affirm our responsibility – not only to vote today, but to vote tomorrow.

In the years before the Civil War, on her 13 trips south to Maryland to guide enslaved family members and friends north to freedom on the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman often wore a lantern to light the way forward. When she died in 1913, 50 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, her last words were reported to have been these: “I will prepare a place for you.

Our votes are our lanterns. Brown them, cherish them, strengthen them. Raise them high, then carry them forward. Let them be light for the future Americans who will come to wear them in turn, vote by vote.


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