Someone recently told me how much they admired the ways in which I was raised, taught and nurtured by my parents, my sister (15 years older) and the extensive village of elders who surrounded, encouraged and protected me. I suppose I hadn’t thought about it much as it was just the way things were – it was my reality – the “way of the world” as Earth, Wind and Fire once expressed in song.
However, in more reflective moments that I’ve taken in the midst of political conventions, accusations of voter suppression and the likelihood that most ballots will be mailed rather than cast in person due to the still unabated health pandemic, I realize how fortunate I have been.
As a father of two young adults, 30 and 26 years of age, and a grandfather as well, I have become one of the respected elders, not only in their lives but in the lives of many of their friends. It is a role and responsibility which I do not take lightly. And as I consider my own upbringing, what stands out most vividly are the lessons I learned not by hearing directions about what to do or how to do it but rather by seeing acts of goodwill completed and promised fulfilled.
The old saying about the differing outcomes which occur when one is given fish to eat, a temporary fix, versus teaching one how to fish which becomes a lifelong and invaluable skill comes to mind.
One lesson which I believe all Black families must teach their children is the practice of active engagement in the political process which obviously includes exercising our guaranteed right to vote as American citizens. Sometimes our reluctance, refusal or decision to vote are guided by the persons on the ballot – like the first time that Barack Obama ran for president when Black folk across the U.S. stood in lines that circled city blocks, refusing to move until their ballot had been cast. I find such behavior a bit strange as my family didn’t base their voting practices on personalities, charisma, race or religious affiliation. Instead, they confirmed their commitment to having their voice heard by voting each and every time the opportunity arose. Further, they took the time necessary to become educated about the candidates and conversant about the differences between those seeking office – from the president to district judges and school board representatives – up and down the ballot.
I was only a little boy, a child of the 60s, when America was struggling with racial injustice and demands for equal rights in ways the nation had never seen before. I remember the horror and anguish that my parents and other elders experienced as our leaders were assassinated: John F. Kennedy, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Bobby Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I witnessed how they processed prejudice when we were refused admittance to or service in hotels, restaurants, gas stations and rest rooms during our annual car trips to Virginia, Maryland, Alabama and northern Florida. And I learned that in order for change to come – permanent, life-altering change – that the ballot box served as the most effective means to reshape society for the better.
And so, little my cartoon favorite Yogi Bear who had an unquenchable thirst for “picnic baskets,” my mother and my primary caregiver, Mrs. Hunt, would pack breakfast sandwiches, fruit, coffee and juice for our families and friends and we’d walk two blocks from our homes in northwest Detroit to the neighborhood public library, the Sherwood Forest Branch. Momma voted early in the morning as did Daddy since both had to get to work. Mrs. Hunt, however, stayed all day long as a poll watcher.
As the day wore on, I would see a growing number of people wearing their buttons or stick-on labels which read, “I voted today!” And I could see the pride on every face of the men and women who, by voting, had been presented with a button or label to wear on their chests, tantamount to a badge of honor.
We don’t need to tell young people tales from history about Blacks being beaten, intimidated or outright denied the opportunity to vote, although these stories remain essential to our collective memory. The most effective means of passing on a tradition is to show how it’s done and why it matters.
If we want to see voter turnout meet or surpass previous highs, we must make voting something that’s fun and exciting. Make voting a family outing. Make it a family affair. And do it every time there’s an election. That’s how we change the world and empower the next generation to do even bigger and greater things that we’ve accomplished.