Opinion: What Black voters like my great-grandfather taught me
Editor’s Note: Elizabeth Alexander is a poet, scholar and president of the Mellon Foundation – the largest funder of arts, culture and humanities in the nation. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
On Tuesday, November 8, we will 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 exercise fundamental to sound governance of the United States, but data on elections in midterm years past suggest that only about half that number are likely to cast a ballot.
Concerns about election safety, frustration over gerrymandering, and despair over federal and state sieges on the right to vote have led many to question if it’s worth voting at all. You yourself may have already concluded, when considering these challenges to American suffrage, that whether or not you vote ultimately does not matter.
It does matter.
Voting is bigger than any one election – midterm, presidential, municipal, state-wide or otherwise. It’s an endeavor that’s more verb, less noun – more “I vote” and “we vote,” than “my vote” or “your vote” .” Voting demands collective exercise, so that election by election, year by year, voting continues to exist.
What we face in this midterm election, and in every election, is not just whether our votes will make a difference in our democracy. It’s whether our votes will make manifest our democracy.
When we enter the voting booth on November 8, we will do more than select a preferred candidate, proposition or ballot measure. What we will do is undertake an act of stewardship, one sacred in its significance, of the right to vote itself.
We will uphold that right so we can then pass it, torch-like, from one American generation to the next, and so we can exercise it on behalf of those in 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 wins and losses are distinct from our work as stewards of voting. During Reconstruction in the American South, this distinction was well understood among Black voters who had been enslaved and disenfranchised prior to the Civil War. I reflect on this in my poem, “The Family Vote”:
“Before my people were required to answer
impossible questions in order to vote:
How many bubbles in a bar of soap?
How many jellybeans fill up a jar?
Can you prove that 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 apart and scattered,
defied, burnt, unraveled. We formed anew.
The vote was not personal property.
The vote did not belong to one alone.
There was no ‘mine’: The family vote.”
It was in my own family that I first learned how the act of voting is democracy made manifest. 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 challenged my father’s movement became in his later years, I could see from their signatures in the ballot ledger that they had always come before me.
This unflinching commitment has since been passed to my own children, who are now old enough to vote themselves. They know the full history of how they have come by this right. They, too, have learned the lessons that history teaches.
My mother still has in her possession the voter registration 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 had registered to vote. As the Equal Justice Initiative’s meticulous records of lynchings throughout the South in those decades reveal, Selma was not a safe place for Black men who exercised their right to suffrage. In 1906, my maternal great-grandfather left for Birmingham, then Washington, DC. The voter registration card went with him.
Today, in the aftermath of January 6, 2021, when violent insurrectionists attempted to stop by force the ratification of the legitimate results of the 2020 presidential election, “vote” is an urgent imperative we must continue to answer at the ballot box. We vote , and we resist disenfranchisement. We vote, and we assert our stewardship – not only of voting today, but of voting tomorrow.
In the years before the Civil War, on her 13 trips south into Maryland to guide enslaved family members and friends north to freedom on the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman often bore a lantern to light the way forward. When she died in 1913, 50 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, it was reported that her last words were these: “I go to prepare a place for you.”
Our votes are our lanterns. Burnish them, treasure them, reinforce them. Raise them high, and then bear them forward. Let them be light for the future Americans who will come to bear them in turn, vote by vote.