I am imagining a teenage future. In it, you are inches taller than I, your WNBA-length fingers hovering over the hologram-enabled screen of the latest palm-sized tablet. You are engaged in no fewer than six conversations, aside from the one I am about to initiate. I will not know by looking at you if you are ready to listen.
We will have this talk two years before you’re old enough to register. My hope is that whoever has taken office then will bear some cultural, ideological, or experiential resemblance to the man we re-elected last Tuesday. If she does, what I have to tell you will seem less like a tall tale or a fable. If he does not and if your memory is less than keen, you may believe I’m romanticizing an invented past.
The truth is: when you were two, we voted for Barack Obama to reclaim the highest office in the land. I pressed a decisive finger on the electronic ballot screen, with you in my arms. You were as still and as quiet as you are when we first enter sanctuaries on Sunday mornings.
You have always understood when a moment calls for reverence.
By then, we had been standing in the hallway of a local middle school for two and a half hours. We were part of a serpentine trail of mostly brown bodies, a community very clearly comprised of members of the working and middle classes. The air around us pulsed with purposeful energy.
Though some complained at the length of the wait — projected, at first, to be three hours — most were either patient, but steely, or bursting forth with optimistic banter: It’s good to see so many out, exercising their rights– and look at all these young folks!
The youth vote is cherished. Earning it makes us feel calmer about the imminent state of the world we’ll leave behind. An eighteen-year-old, regardless of whether she is won over by rhetoric, emotion, or careful study of each candidate’s platform, is a sapling in a marshland, a newly hatched chick in an aviary for the endangered. For the parents, the middle-aged, and the elders, you — more than any candidate or speech — are the hope of our nation.
I did not know this at your age. I’d heard it, but only as saccharine sentiment, as lyrics in a chart-topping Whitney Houston pop cover, as so much white noise amid the drone of my own angst. Even at 19, I could not be convinced that my participation was integral to the maintenance of a functioning democracy. But I still began to vote that year, like the dutiful descendant of a people once considered three-fifths human that I am.
It seemed a moral obligation, if mostly a ceremonial one, every ballot cast a pouring of libation for the brothers and sisters who are no longer here.
I wasn’t sure what it meant. Between the influence of the electoral college, the fact that my state rarely yielded close-call election results, and my general ambivalence about candidates and their concern for the needs of people like us, voting did little to make me feel less insignificant.
This changed, of course, with the 2004 Democratic National Convention, where Barack Obama, then a mere Senate candidate, delivered his iconic Audacity of Hope address. I suspect that, by these, your teenage years, this speech will have been canonized in history texts and delivered ad nauseum in youth oratory contests. But you will no more grasp what it meant to hear it in real time than I can ascertain how the marchers felt on the Mall, as the musings of Martin Luther King Jr. billowed around them like a baptismal tide.
For better or worse, politics that engage the emotions are most effective with the portion of the electorate whose attitudes most resemble mine. Political agents with the power to move you will always be able to compel you to act, even when you can’t entirely comprehend why. What moves you, however, is more a reflection on you than on them. And this election, this battle to retain incumbency, was a prime example of that.
Those moved toward the idea of a diverse and inclusive America, wherein citizens and lifelong residents can carve their home-shaped space, voted for progress and forward motion, voted with an eye toward an inevitably altering national landscape. Those wistful for the days of fewer liberties for all and a glut of power and wealth for those who’ve always held it cast their vote for the man who promised to redeem what they believed they’d lost. And more than in any other election during which I’ve been eligible to vote, the distance between those movements widened.
An hour after we’d entered the voting line, I looked down at you, absently smoothing wisps of your hair, and worried that you wouldn’t hold up for the slow march toward the school cafeteria.
But regardless of how long it took, you rallied. You played foot games with the elderly man behind us, got a cluster of first-time-voting teens to join you in a game of follow-the-leader. You peeked around my legs as though they were pillars and used them to hide your face from the family five feet back.
It occurred to me that, as a people, we have always known when to wait. Even when restless or resistant, we can intuit the import of tarrying. It mean the difference between triumph or a trap.
Then, as has been the case with so many things in my life after you were born, my reasons for voting became crystalline. As we stood on that line together last week, I realized just how greatly what we were doing as a precinct, as a city, as a state, as a country would impact how you live, how you’re educated, how you’re employed, how much debt you’ll acquire, how high a tax you’ll pay for the life you lead, how you’ll retire, how you’ll view equality….
The ripples were endless.
Someday soon you will apprehend what it means to be American. It is to feel at once horrified and resplendent. It is knowing that your life is, in many ways, a summation of your country’s choices. Until then, vote for whichever reasons you wish. Wait until the revelations come to you.