The first presidential election in which I was old enough to vote was the 2000 Gore-Bush contest. On Election Day, my mother called me and said simply, “I wanted to make sure you voted today. Your great-grandmother (born in rural North Louisiana in 1903) took great pride in voting. You do the same.”
My great-grandmother Daisy, made sure that one of her granddaughters came during every Presidential election to take her to vote. Even though she didn’t walk well, because of a physical disability from her youth. Even though she signed her signature with an X.
When I got to the polls adjacent to Howard U’s campus as I headed in to vote, I ran into an older man named Lawrence Guyot. He was gentle and called us eager young voters up to him one by one to explain that he was running for election to the City Council (I think) on the Green Party ticket. I obliged him politely, albeit probably a bit impatiently.
And then I went in and cast my vote for Al Gore. I may even have voted for Mr. Guyot. I can’t remember now.
We all know how the story ended. The Supreme Court disregarded the will of the people in Florida and stole the presidency for George W. Bush.
And today, we find ourselves still reeling from the economic and geo-political results of that decision.
It would be years later, when I was in graduate school, before I came to know who Lawrence Guyot was. As director of Freedom Summer in Mississippi in 1964 and as chairman of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, he had literally been beaten and arrested for my right to vote. We know the MFDP because it put Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer on a national stage, as the MFDP moved to unseat the state Democratic Party at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.
When I walked in and cast my vote that day, there was literally someone there who had fought for me to be able to be there. And he brought along the presence of the ancestors, my great-grandmother, Fannie Lou Hamer, and so many others who understood the value of the vote.
The thing that staggers my mind today is how easily history had moved to forget Mr. Guyot. I think about how I didn’t even know his name until I was privileged enough to go to grad school, something most Americans will not do.
I think about how easily the battles and struggles to get here are forgotten.
We have re-learned this lesson this year as the GOP has waged a veritable war on Women’s Rights. And voting rights, too.
Despite these lessons, this history, I have seen a profusion of young radical brothers and old school radical cats declaring brazenly that they will not vote.
Over and over again, I saw in my FB feed, them reposting an excerpt from a 1956 W.E.B. Du Bois speech in which Dr. Du Bois declared:
“The present Administration is carrying on the greatest preparation for war in the history of mankind. Stevenson promises to maintain or increase this effort. The weight of our taxation is unbearable and rests mainly and deliberately on the poor. This Administration is dominated and directed by wealth and for the accumulation of wealth. It runs smoothly like a well-organized industry and should do so because industry runs it for the benefit of industry. Corporate wealth profits as never before in history. We turn over the national resources to private profit and have few funds left for education, health or housing. … It costs three times his salary to elect a Senator and many millions to elect a President. This money comes from the very corporations which today are the government. This in a real democracy would be enough to turn the party responsible out of power. Yet this we cannot do.” — W.E.B. Du Bois, 1956
He could just as easily have been talking about 2012 as 1956. And yet, it was after he said this that Martin Luther King marched, that Fannie Lou Hamer got beaten, that Malcolm X demanded “the ballot or the bullet.”
How do we reconcile our history of Civil Rights, our deep belief and investment as a people in the franchise with today’s legitmate disillusionments?
I know that many of us who tend toward the radical left in our politics cannot help but see the problems with the kind of imperialist, capitalist, deeply racist and patriarchal politics that continue to structure American society. We do not want to keep co-signing the madness for the sake of “tradition.”
And certainly, it goes without saying that President Obama governs just slightly to the left of center on his best days. On his worse days, he could be an actual Republican.
And yet, statistics show that in 2008, Black women were the single largest voter demographic of any group. Is it that Black women are politically naïve, that Black men are more politically visionary? Does Black women’s support for President Obama suggest a reckless disregard for life of people of color everywhere else?
Of course not.
It was Black women like Jessie Fauset and Anna H. Jones, who organized the Pan African Conferences that Du Bois is so famous for. It was Black women who started the International Council of Women of the Darker Races in 1922. It was Black women who started the Third World Women’s Alliance in the early 1970s. We have always had a global perspective.
And unlike, Du Bois, (and James Baldwin and Richard Wright), we didn’t quit the country. Sisters as wide-ranging as Mary Church Terrell, Ida B. Wells, Pauli Murray, and Angela Davis, have journeyed abroad, found racial conditions much more livable there, and still chosen to come back home and fight for the lives of Black folks in the U.S.
Black women have never had the luxury of disillusionment. While brothers have gathered in elite organizations and institutions to hash out Black people’s political future, to engage in a lot of intellectual dick politicking and pissing contests, sisters have done the community organizing and voting that has held the racial body politic together. We have voted for the candidates that would make sure we could have a job, put our kids in safe schools, and put food on the table.
We have clawed and struggled for every meager gain we have gotten in this democracy. And sisters have the broken nails and bloodied knees to prove it.
Far from being short-sighted, we have what Stanlie James and Abena Busia call visionary pragmatism.
I know it is not only Black men who have problems with President Obama. I know plenty of radical left sisters who are fed up with the utter ineffectiveness of a two-party system. Black women, in fact, have a long history of defying the two-party system. Charlotta Bass ran for Vice President on the Progressive Party Ticket in 1952. In 2008, Cynthia McKinney and Rosa Clemente ran on the Green Party ticket. And in this election a young sister named Peta Lindsay is running on the Socialist Party ticket.
And while I will be voting for President Obama, despite my varied disappointments, I can understand voting for a 3rd party candidate. But not voting is unconscionable.
Brothers can tell themselves that not voting is fine, because they by-and-large don’t have to worry about the cost of birth control. Good condoms cost what? $7 a pack. Birth control pills? $25 a pack with good insurance! Brothers by-and-large don’t do the care work in our communities. The care of the elderly is deeply gendered work. So they can tell themselves that withholding their votes serves a greater good even though the choice to do so might make life a hell of a lot harder for the elderly folks they hold so dear, not to mention continuing to place an undue economic burden on women.
In many cases, I do believe in drawing lines in the sand. I do think we have to take a stand for what’s right, that sometimes doing what is convenient in the short run will short-circuit our ability to change things for the better in the long run. But as a Black feminist, a Hip Hop Generation feminist, I also fancy myself a both/and kinda girl.
Can I hold in tension the fact that my vote simultaneously eases tax burdens and healthcare costs on the poor and the middleclass in the U.S. while also going to fund wars I don’t believe in and capitalist trade practices I don’t support? Can I hold in tension the fact that President Obama has arrested and deported more Brown folks than the Bush Administration, greatly expanding the operation and reach of the Prison Industrial Complex, while also being reminded that his is the first administration to reduce the crack vs. cocaine sentencing disparity that had disproportionate effects on communities of color?
Can I hold in tension the fact that every single brother I know who says he’s withholding his vote in pursuit of a revolutionary future is an academic at a fairly elite institution?
Though Professor Frederick C. Harris does go so far as to reject voting, he writes among other things: “Whether it ends in 2013 or 2017, the Obama presidency has already marked the decline, rather than the pinnacle, of a political vision centered on challenging racial inequality. The tragedy is that black elites — from intellectuals and civil rights leaders to politicians and clergy members — have acquiesced to this decline, seeing it as the necessary price for the pride and satisfaction of having a black family in the White House.”
Professor Harris also decries the decline not only of a political vision centered on challenging racial inequality, but also a decline in the Black prophetic tradition, particularly that, which grew out of the Black Church. While I agree with his critique of the ways that Black religious cultures have become depoliticized in the wake of the rise of the prosperity gospel, I continue to be totally disappointed by all these Black male academics who construct their notions of the best of Black political visions around a procession of Great Race Men.
Of the paltry number of Black women mentioned, only Ida B. Wells is celebrated. Like many of his contemporary Blackademic male colleagues, Harris dismisses Melissa Harris-Perry as “all but an apologist for President Obama.”
Moreover, since it is Black women by-and-large who voted for President Obama, he reduces our political decision making to a desire solely to see a Black family in the White House. This assumes that we don’t see beautiful, functional Black families in our lives every day. Moreover, it shows a real myopic understanding of the political pressure put on Black women to maintain the Black family as a viable political and cultural institution, particularly while academic elites like Harris proclaim the decline of Black political leadership a la Harold Cruse. Even if it were true that Black women voted for President Obama solely out of a sense of loyalty to Black male race leaders –and there’s no denying that this is a part of our thinking, but not the whole of it—to dismiss that as a kind of fantastical naivete is to engage in a kind of willful ignorance about the ways in which racial patriarchy compels Black women’s loyalty to Black men, particularly when they are as impressive as President Obama.
What I’m really trying to get at is this sort of Black male political and intellectual arrogance, this smugness with which Black men levy these political critiques and the ways in which Black women either disappear from the histories that undergird their perspectives or become dismissed as unthoughtful apologists for a broken system.
But if your prophetic and political tradition starts with Maria Stewart and Sojourner Truth, moves through Ida B. Wells, Anna Julia Cooper, and Mary Church Terrell, takes a gander through Claudia Jones and Flo Kennedy, stops by the house of Fannie Lou Hamer, Shirley Chisolm, Barbara Jordan and Fran Beale and doesn’t forget Angela Davis, Elaine Brown, bell hooks, Patricia Williams, Donna Brazile and all the nameless faces of sisters that can’t be named because they were never doing it for the spotlight, then it would be harder to see Black prophetic traditions as being in decline. It would be easier to see that what’s really in decline is a Great charismatic Race Man model of leadership. (You should check out Erica Edwards fabulous new book Charisma and the Fictions of Black Leadership for more on this point.) And even though Black men know all the limitations of that model, in many ways the world of Black politics feels safer with Strong Men running it. We are in a world deeply in need not only of new political models but also new leadership models. And based on Black women’s long history of staying connected to the pulse of Black communities, I’d say that the places where Black women put their political energies are a good bet for all of us.
As for tomorrow, I’m sticking with the President. I hope you will, too.
Below feel free to share your thoughts on voting or not voting, how you do or don’t reconcile a radical politic with a choice to participate in tomorrow’s elections, or your general thoughts on Black leadership.