In 2004, I watched every celebrity who graced the TV for any awards show, interview or other appearance where they spoke off script tell the audience to vote. Diddy stood on 106 & Park in a Vote or Die shirt telling us how crucial it was to get out and vote against Bush. Our votes were the only way to stop the destruction of the Bush administration. John Kerry and the democrats were going to save us, but only if we saved ourselves.
After nearly 1 million Black votes, half of the approximately 2 million total “spoiled votes” were cast aside in the 2000 election, despite the fact that “black voters make up only 12 percent of the electorate,” this was our time for redemption. A stolen election had resulted in a war arguably as contested as the Vietnam War three decades earlier, strained international relations and a recession. George W. Bush had to go.
Black people turned out to vote at roughly 60%, the highest percentage of all non-white voters. And still George W. Bush won. Thousands of the Black people who had chosen the former when presented with the option to “vote or die” still ended up being resigned the latter when the person supposedly chosen by a democratic contest neglected them during what seemed like an apocalyptic natural disaster. Hundreds of thousands more lost their jobs and homes.
Then in 2007 emerged the great Black hope. Barack Obama’s meteoric rise to viable candidate for the first Black person to occupy the office of the United States Presidency was what it seemed like we’d all been waiting for. And to prove it, in 2008, for the first time in history, the 18-24 Black demographic turned out at a greater rate than the same white demographic, while Black women had the highest voting rate of all demographics.
The reward was swift and sweet. Barack Hussein Obama was elected the first Black President of the United States. NIGGA, WE MADE IT!
Or did we? During Obama’s eight years as POTUS, his most loyal constituency, the Black people who voted for him at 95% in 2008 and 93% in 2012, were targeted, neglected, exterminated and oppressed with the same fervor as we had been when the previous 43 white men sat in the Oval Office. For all our votes, all we’d gain was the “important representation” I keep hearing matters. The hope Obama had granted us the audacity to have left us with nothing more than bragging rights on helping to elect the first Black man to the highest office in the land.
Then in 2016, likely disillusioned with the choices and tired of being told to vote for the lesser of two evils, some Black people sat out the election, at least the Presidential election, the Black voter rate decline 7 points from 66% four years prior to 59%. The admonishments were immediate and harsh as Black and white people alike took to social media to lambaste Black voters who refused to pick the lesser of two evils. Popular rhetoric issued by white folks who refuse to take accountability for the political climate they’ve fashioned and Black folks too delusional to accept that our place at the table is always as the main dish no matter who sits at the head would have us believe that Black Americans opting out of voting in the last Presidential election have effectively ushered in a Hitleresque error.
And for the past two years all we’ve heard is how tomorrow’s mid-term elections are our only hope to stop the madman in office. We have to vote locally and nationally to set the world right side up again. Vote or die. Again.
Meanwhile, my friends are hitting me up about Thanksgiving food drives, ceasefire initiatives, collecting feminine products to take the homeless shelter, coat drives, toy drives and volunteering to read to the children at our local elementary schools. I’m flooded with donations from Black people to help Black women flee domestic violence situations, reconnect their lights and put gas in their car for the week. I’m watching Black people shut down, literally stand outside and prevent anybody from entering, establishments which violently discriminate against Black customers.
I’m using my own platform to organize and executive a drive for single Black women to have their children’s school supply lists filled, create a space where solutions and fundraising are accessible to Black people and share information on community building. I’m watching my mother make sure her neighbor’s children have school shoes and uniforms. I’m missing the light to make sure I drop a few bucks in the bucket of the high school girls in uniform holding a sign that reads “Fundraiser for Our Class Trip.” My friend has neighborhood children in her basement teaching them to sew with sewing machines generously donated by the community.
Still, those Black folks who retreat to their middle class existence, soothed by the fantasy that they are insulated from the problems of the collective Black condition because they wanted more did the work of educating themselves and working hard, take to social media and their exclusive social groups to gripe about how we poor Black folks just don’t give a damn, and won’t even vote. And those who label themselves activists take to the very neighborhood where the community work that has sustained us and literally saved Black lives for decades is happening to tell those whose raw organizing does more for the Black condition than any ballot ever will that they do not care about their communities if they don’t head to the polls and cast votes for candidates who’ll neglect that same community again until the next election season. And white liberals tiptoe around their racist leanings preaching to Black people whose hands ache from planting community gardens about civic duty and prop so-and-so which will protect our rights to do some thing that we are denied anyway.
Then when any Black person makes any attempt to discuss solving our collective problems beyond the voting booth, the inevitable “so don’t vote?” is issued with the tired followup about how our ancestors died for our right to vote ignoring, or perhaps never recognizing, that our ancestors fight for the right to vote is our fight as we battle voter suppression and a system that willingly turns us into felons, threatening or outright stealing our right to participate in the election process anyway. Or that our ancestors didn’t stop at voting drives.
The Panthers started their own free breakfast program and got the children street lights. How many of our grandparents fed anybody in the neighborhood who looked like they needed a good meal? How many of our fathers fixed cars for free for those in the community who couldn’t afford it? Community action was ancestors daily fight.
Further, our ancestors didn’t die for our right to vote. They died because they wanted to simply live in a society that criminalized their existence. They were targeted and murdered for exercising their rights and let us not legitimize the pathology of white violence by suggesting that their deaths were righteous or warranted.
But the only two options for Black people are voting and crossing our fingers hoping the oligarchs have a conscience or at least care enough to stall our annihilation, or opting not to vote and accepting our doom. There’s no conversation to be had with those who’d rather place the blame for the candidates in office at the feet of the powerless rather than tearing down a system that would make such repugnant people viable candidates in the first place. Lecturing Black people about voting is much easier and more popular than actually developing a plan to deconstruct this bastion of racist, elitist, capitalist exploitation.
But soapboxes are only hastily and shoddily constructed when the audience is Black people. Finger wagging is always justified and encouraged. Responsibility for our own community is preached as we literally take responsibility for our own communities is routine ways everyday.
But voting is what will save us. Conceding to power and waiting for those we’ve entrusted to introduce legislation that will save us is the only way Black people will ever get free from a system that plays the sharpening of its knives and forks preparing to feast on our persecution forever in our left ear as we hear “vote or die” in the right.
Or vote and still die which is what Black communities torn apart by state violence and intracommunity violence bolstered by orchestrated poverty really hear. Your lectures won’t push Black people to polls. Neither will your safe activism, too afraid to enter the communities you think need to vote most.
Black people don’t need your BET specials in late October every two years or perfectly-worded social media rants. We don’t need your forums headed by panels of respectable Black folks who use all the big words and have a laundry list of white media appearances on their resumes. Black people don’t need hip celebrities reminding us how “cool” voting is every election season.
Black people need all hands on deck. We need community-driven plans of action. We need communal learning. We need to save ourselves.