As the youngest of my parents’ four children by more than a decade, I spent a great deal of my time as a child with “old folks” — my parents, my grandmothers and older babysitters who became my adoptive “Big Mamas” and “Ma Dears.” Time spent with these cultural sages made me privy to the unseen spiritual and political forces that kept my world, the South Side of Chicago, spinning on its axis.
Like most African Americans living in Chicago in the 1970s at the end of the Great Migration, my parents were former sharecroppers who had escaped the shackles of Jim Crow life in their native lands of Mississippi and Alabama and who had struck out, alongside other Black Southerners, in search of a better life in the north. A life where their children could get a good education and earn a decent wage for a day’s work in a place where they could vote. They believed this was their birthright — duly granted by constitutional amendment. Both of my parents were keen political analysts who regaled their friends, and me, with colorful commentaries about national and local politics that always ended with a stern admonishment that “Black folks need to vote!” That was their mantra.
The 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified 150 years ago today, made this possible, on paper. It granted the right to vote to any man, regardless of race. But my parents had witnessed firsthand how literacy tests, poll taxes and grandfather clauses were wielded by the white powers-that-be to impede Black people from voting in the South. It wasn’t until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that full enfranchisement was granted to all U.S. citizens, namely the descendants of enslaved African people who literally built the South and whose free labor many American corporations continue to reap benefits from today.
Although neither of my parents finished high school, they recognized their agency and clung to their right to be self-determined. They saw voting as a way to speak for themselves and to stand up for what they believed. They drilled this belief into me as we braved the bitter Chicago “hawk” to head to the polls on election day. I fondly remember my mother beaming with joy when she exited the voting booth and was handed her “I Voted” sticker.
On a few occasions, I accompanied my paternal grandmother, Mamie, to vote at the library. While she stood in line, I’d thumb through magazines and newspapers and dream about what my life might look like when I was a voting adult. I didn’t know it then, but by casting their votes, my elders were giving voice to their own dreams and putting their individual stamp on a right endowed to all Americans.
I believe my parents would be shocked and ashamed to learn of the movement underfoot to make it harder for many Americans to vote. My recent visit to the MVA to get a Real ID Maryland driver’s license was a confusing ordeal that took two more attempts before I was granted the new license and voter ID card. The closure of polling places most accessible to the poor, infirm and elderly, and the difficulty in getting an ID, are I believe, nothing more than 21st century measures to strip marginalized people of their birthright.
As a newcomer to Baltimore, I will be voting in local elections here for the first time. Baltimore, like Charleston, South Carolina, from where I recently moved, is an important historical port-city that shaped this country’s reluctant consciousness of slavery and race. Like Chicago, it is a tale of two cities — a destination of opulence, social cachet and financial capital and one of blighted neighborhoods with ensuing crime, under-resourced public schools, little access to fresh food and too few jobs with living wages.
Yet in Baltimore, I see people like my parents: people with grit, resilience and the audacity not just to “hope” — as former President Barack Obama would say — but to get up, stare down the negative headlines and often times bleak circumstances to face another day, whether it’s walking their kids to school or riding the bus to work.
It is my fervent hope that they will meet me at the polls this year, steadfast and emboldened by the assurance of the 15th Amendment, despite 150 years of systematic perfidy, knowing, as I do, that the will of the people will not be silenced. See you all at the polls!
Patricia Williams Lessane (firstname.lastname@example.org) is associate vice president of Academic Affairs Morgan State University.