A scene from the 1974 influential and gritty Black film about the rugged New York streets and its gangs called “The Education of Sonny Carson” sums up the sentiment that permeated the Black community’s mindset toward voting in America and the possibilities it rendered for Black folks… in this scene, the central figure, a high school-aged Sonny Carson, is on the rooftop with some neighborhood old heads smoking and drinking when the old heads jokingly mock Sonny to stay in school because maybe one day he could be “president”(of the United States)!
Until recently, Black America didn’t dare dream that big… to think our vote matter… to think that voting would be fair enough for our vote to matter.
My story on voting flows from that Black experience…
My great grandfather shared stories with my dad about his experience with voting… Essentially, There were none.
My great grandfather lived in the South during the time when Black folks couldn’t vote and when they could… they couldn’t… and when they were legally protected with the right to vote… they didn’t!
They didn’t entertain the notion of participatory democracy because if they did and followed through on that notion beatings, harassment, loss of housing, jobs, careers ensued. This retribution suppressed the desire to vote and the belief that Black voters wouldn’t be treated fairly by White America in exercising our vote. This suppression had lingering impacts on my voting legacy as passed down from my great grandfather to my dad to me.
My dad, Dia Damani, an African American man, born in 1947 in Chicago, IL states pretty simply that he sat out the vote, the national vote, for many elections because he was certain that his vote, the black vote wouldn’t matter, that our vote wouldn’t count… but even more important that regardless of who won, black lives still wouldn’t be treated equally or fairly. This belief, which was rooted in his family’s lived experience of suppression, intimidation, violence and retribution that came along with voting in America, led him to many efforts at creating a separate existence for black folks in this American Experiment. He paraphrases Black revolutionary, Black Panther member George Jackson who said that “any election that we, Black folks, participated in instead of trying to disrupt only fortified the ruling class power” so he and many of his friends not only didn’t vote but actively created institutions such as Black Independence Party, Black Separatist Movement, Republic of New Africa, and the Black Topographical Center to bring to life this separate Black political and social existence.
Ironically, the democratic process of voting was central to the creation, and ultimate disintegration, of these organizations. You see, voting was used to make all decisions as a way to make sure the “voice of the masses” was clearly heard as well as that voice forged the direction of these organizations. My father describes the “voice of the masses” as the wisest of the wise. So as these organizations tried to create a separate existence for Black America, what was resoundingly returned by the masses through their vote, their voice was, “Why start over?”. The masses, at that time, rejected the idea of separation from America opting instead for building our wherewithal and power within the current condition. This clear rebuke by the masses is what pivoted my father toward more fully engaging in the democratic process of voting here in America.
His first national election vote he caste was in 1972 in the Democratic primary for one, Shirley Chisholm!
He has voted locally and nationally ever since!
Side Note: The sentiment of “sitting out the vote” still is held by some within the Black community to this day. In my hometown of Milwaukee Wisconsin, in the 2016 election, thousands and thousands of Black folks didn’t vote. Their reasons echo those of past generations in believing it didn’t matter who won they wouldn’t treat us fairly… my vote doesn’t matter… what is the blowback for voting?… intimidation, harassment, jail time for voting if you are a felon, fines, etc.
Non-participation by Black America is the by-product of a constant assault on the agency and autonomy of a community trying to stand on its own. So sitting out the vote shouldn’t solely be seen as apathy but as a complex, historical legacy of intentional acts to dissuade and prevent Black folks from voting. Matter of fact, this history created Black community’s inertia toward voting.
Last, until recently, Black voters usually used the power of their ballot to vote AGAINST something or someone rather than vote FOR something of someone. Two examples are Black voters overwhelming voted against the policies of our 40th President Ronald Reagan – 83% in 1980 and 91% in 1984 both of which Reagan still won… and Black voters turned in out in mass to vote against the LA gubernatorial candidacy of David Duke, a known KKK member and white supremacist in 1991. In that LA gubernatorial example, Black voters would rather have a guy in Edwin Edwards who was convicted of several corruption crimes instead of vote for a KKK member. Edwards won by a margin of 61-39% to become the next LA Governor.
The first national vote I cast was in 2004 at the age of 29… In Bush vs Kerry. But my pivot toward fully participating with my vote occurred on December 12, 2000 when the Supreme Court ruled that the recount of Florida’s 25 electoral votes would go to George W. Bush over Al Gore thus making him our 43rd President of the United States. It was at this time that it concretized for me that voting matter! Because the fact that the fate of our democratic process of voting was left to nine people to decide didn’t feel like democracy. So it was then that I pledged to vote and have done so ever since in local, regional, state-wide and national elections!
Then came Two Thousand Eight!
This was the first election that I truly felt I could, that I believe Black voters could, vote FOR someone on the national scale. Barack Hussein Obama! He was US… he embodied our aspirations to reach the highest of highs… he embraced our struggle for fairness! He unleashed the true power and potential of the Black vote for the first time in our country’s history. His historical candidacy and election erased the mindset of most Black people that their vote didn’t matter… that it wouldn’t count… his candidacy gave us hope! Long lines formed at almost every polling place… word of mouth enthusiasm spread like wild fire… we could finally dare to dream BIG… the Black vote came out in full force! Obama’s ascendancy to the top the world’s most powerful country in the world made possible by the democratic process of making one’s voice heard through the ballot provided an indelible mark upon the psyche of Black voters, Black America, me and my dad. His election proved our vote mattered!
Side Note: As a reminder, former President Barack Obama NEVER won the white vote! So the notions of white folks installed him are patently false. It was OUR vote, the BLACK VOTE, that made his presidency real! His election and the Black vote made real the encouragement from Malcolm X in his famous “The Ballot or The Bullet” speech. In that speech, he urged Black America to use “the most powerful weapon” we have in a democratic society – OUR VOTE – to bring about a bloodless revolution! Vote… Vote… Vote… use our power to place in position the candidates who would work for our goals and aims of dismantling white supremacy and advancing the Black agency. Barack Obama’s election in 2008 and re-election in 2012 showcased the power and vitality of the Black vote that Malcolm X had foreshadowed in his “The Ballot or The Bullet” speech some 40+ years beforehand.
In the August 14, 2018 primary, my voting story continued with three Hayes’ casting a ballot for the first time! My wife and I along with my oldest son, Damani, who was casting his first ballot ever! My son knows no other existence than full participation via his vote. This if one of my and my wife’s most impactful possessions that our children will inherit.
I leave you with this… on the night of Barack Obama’s election in 2008, my father, in Los Angeles, and I, in Mankato, were talking on the phone philosophizing about the history we were witnessing… the wonder of seeing the first black president with our own eyes… witnessing this moment not only for us but for those who had come before us who were unable to see such a sight with their own eyes… like my great grandfather. Abruptly, my father says he has to go… I react surprisingly like “What? Wait? What do you mean?”… he says “I got to go! The masses are jubilant in the streets! I got to go be with the masses!”… we ended the call with our customary “later on”… I sat quiet, smiling, emotional… thinking this is the jubilation that he, 61 at the time, had been working for and waiting on for 40years! The thought of a black president didn’t produce laughter anymore… it produced JUBILATION!
The Black vote… voting… full participation in the democratic process… Black voters finally believed they mattered.
Update: As I write this, our American Experiment, its democracy and the existential and material lives of Black folks hang in the balance. The Black Masses – the wisest of the wise – have chosen their candidate. Joseph Biden, the faithful friend and former VP for Barack Obama, our beloved Black president. For the November 3rd, 2020 election (one day away as I type), when compared to the current occupant of the White House – another avowed white supremacist in an election echoing the dynamics of the David Duke Louisiana Gubernatorial race in 1991 – Biden holds a +85% advantage with Black women voters and a +77% with Black men voters. Black folks and Black voters know who their immortal enemy in America is – white supremacy – and like in 1991 will always vote against it.
The Black vote and voice has unequivocally shown who they feel is in the best interest of the Black community. The Black Masses have indicated who they back. They have the words of Malcolm X firmly in the forefront of their minds as they “use the most powerful weapon” we have to bring about a “bloodless” revolution! I am taking the guidance of and falling in line with the Black Masses in voting for Joseph Biden and Kamala Harris, a Black woman, he selected to be his VP nominee.