In nearly every election held since you were born, I’ve brought you into the voting booth with me. This election was the first in which you seemed even marginally engaged with where we were and what we might be doing there. Even a few months ago, when we walked into this same space to vote in the midterm primaries, you followed me wordlessly, more interested in the interior design of a real live middle school than in the political process playing out in its cafeteria.
I understand this wholeheartedly. My experience of 1980s childhood and ‘90s adolescence was working-class but suburban, insular and naive in ironic and dangerous ways. Though it was only true for a faction of us, there was a contingent of Black kids living in predominantly Black cities in this country, who believed our parents had weathered the worst of white supremacy, that we were approaching something akin to equity, a Huxtablication of our educational and professional ideals.
Because a few more of our peers had college-educated and advance-degree-holding parents than in generations past, it was easy for an inkling of entitlement to creep in. We were children being raised 20 years after desegregation, living in decent, if nondescript, neighborhoods that were clean, safe, affordable, and Black. We presumed that our dreams—even the wildest ones—were attainable at only moderate cost. We might’ve been well aware that other Black neighborhoods were suffering, neighborhoods to which we all had the close connections of cousins, co-parents, friends, or church affiliations. It was the height of the crack era, after all, followed by zero-tolerance legislation that kept robbing us of people we cared about. Still we toggled between the ignorance that our own families were fewer than four paychecks from similar fates and the idealistic belief that any success we attained as grownups would eventually be able to eradicate generational poverty.
I am not sure how I came to belong to this faction of dreamy-eyed Black kids. I was raised an apartment-dweller, born to a single-parent household. Little beyond my mom’s biweekly pay and her acquired adeptness at making payment arrangements on our bills stood between us and a series of shut-off notices or an eviction. In the event that I would grow up to graduate from a four-year college, I’d be the first in our immediate family to do so. I do not quite know where I got all my optimism. But I think it was because we did well enough without homeownership or college degrees for me not to realize them as the markers of generational stability they were.
For 30 years, my grandmother worked as a stenographer in Baltimore City Circuit Court. My mother worked in medical billing, sensible, if unfulfilling, jobs that kept situational poverty at bay. I took their holding that wall for granted, believing the rhetoric of the day about how endless opportunity had become for kids growing up Black and not-quite-broke in America. Neither of my nana nor my mom dissuaded me from becoming an artist. They might’ve believed, as I did, that the sacrifices of their pragmatism had given me the wiggle room of whimsy so many white kids accept as their birthright.
I also watched a lot of TV, during a time when depictions of suburban Black family life shared enough cultural similarity with my own home experience to convince me that no social harm could befall me that would be too great for me to overcome.
I fear that I am raising you with an inherited insularity. But I will not have you perpetuating all my childhood delusions.
I was taught that voting held particular import for Black Americans, because the right to do so had been withheld from us for so long. My mother, born in 1960, is five years older than the Voting Rights Act. My grandmother, who would not have been of legal voting age until my mother was one year old, could not cast a ballot when she turned 18.
In the 1980s, our rhetoric around voting was not only about honoring the bloody sacrifices of our long-departed ancestors. Voting was still new enough to us then that the novelty had yet to wear off.
Even during those Reagan years, optimism about our country’s collective racial future felt easier than it is nearly 40 years later. We had not elected a Black president then. We had not witnessed the depth to which the country could backslide after clearing what then seemed an improbable zenith. We had grown hesitant to believe, with so many newly-minted anti-discrimination laws in place, laws it had taken the country centuries to implement, that they could be ignored, rescinded and violated with such staggering impunity. Voting seemed less a matter of survival than ceremony. As a kid, the idea of it felt the same to me as observing Martin Luther King Day—probably because I failed to realize that I was older than Martin Luther King Day, that it existed because of a bill it taken many people years to bring to the ballot, a bill enough white Americans opposed that it could have been ousted with far more ease than it was passed.
I voted on ceremony for many years, straight-ticket Democratic for most, though I was registered as an independent. And I did so cynically, because the popular vote does not determine all. And it’s disheartening when, despite a larger share of layperson support, the electoral college appoints the candidate a majority of voters opposes. For a time, in my early 20s, it didn’t matter much to me who was in office. They were all white and thereby largely disinterested in my community’s specific interests.
I didn’t canvas for anyone until 2008, when I walked residential neighborhoods in Grand Rapids, Michigan, armed with clipboards and pamphlets, making sure people were registered and that they intended to support Obama. But even that was a detached engagement. I felt confident he would win, for one, and secondly, I was not yet your mother. We knew relative political peace for the first six years of your life. You were born in a midterm year, 2010. You were two when Obama was re-elected. You are 8 now that his legacy feels distant, 8 while our future as a republic feels indeterminate, 8 as new test for the first time in recent history the sturdiness of the most fundamental components of our constitution. I can tell you now what no one had a precedent for telling me when I was your age: if America elects someone who has no intention of being president and every intention of establishing a dictatorship, voting is less a coronation scepter than a prison shiv, the sticker we receive afterward less a corsage than a bandoleer. If America elects someone who intends to obstruct justice, the hard-won tool of justice that is the vote, this tool Black families like ours have only been able to hold for some 60+ years, provides us too little protection. But it is one of our only protections. So we must wield it as ferociously as we can.
In 2018, there is evidence of this everywhere. Despite broken ballot scanners, vote-switching, hours-long lines, stacks of unprocessed voter registration forms, races declared prematurely, and other forms of suppression too insidious to know, the Democratic Party reclaimed the House of Representatives, and the recklessness of this president’s first two years will at least be met with former opposition. Because he is an avowed racist and misogynist, a record number of women, particularly women of color, campaigned and won seats in that House, powered by the votes of women like me, interested in guarding the futures of girls like you.
I’ll be honest: I am still afraid. I do not believe this election has done enough to protect the country from collapse before the next one. I am not confident that we’ll gain enough momentum to oust our current president from his post in 2020. That wariness is warranted. When the time comes, I encourage you to wield a bit of it yourself at the ballot box. But there are braver women than I in office now. And you will be raised with the scores of them as pillars of reference. Though it remains to be seen what will come of their efforts, I will match their work with my own. I finally understand why I must.