Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Mama On: Voting

"Never forget: somebody died for your right to vote."

I voted today. I didn't vote early, because this election was special and I needed to "be there". I needed to walk up to the poll, present my identification and cast my vote -- because I could. Oddly, or perhaps it really isn't odd at all, I met several practicing Mamaknologists in the process. It was interesting that we all knew the words, exactly the way my mother drilled them into me; we'd all been raised with them.

And it made me think of all the reasons I needed to be there. In my heart and in my mind, I knew that I made this exciting journey in the shoes of so many people. I thought of Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Fredrick Douglass, among so many others. But more importantly, I thought of my father and his U.S. Air Force career. He's a WWII and Korean War vet, and he proudly cast his vote for Obama. My mother, who, in 1963, defied all "logic" and climbed on a bus for the trip from Cleveland, Ohio to Washington, DC. And though she is no longer with us, she would be pleased and proud to know that this much of The Dream has come to pass.

Then, I thought of my own life and all that I have seen, and one incident stood out for me. I was in the first group of students that Cleveland bussed from one neighborhood to another in the interest of integration. Believe me when I say that this is a story I always knew I would tell, I just didn't know how or when I would tell it. Now seems right.

I was nine or ten years old. I was considered to be a gifted student with a very supportive family -- ideal candidate, right? Anyway, I was thrilled to have my lunchbox and to take the ride on the bus with my friends. My mother was terrified.

So, I climbed on the bus and went to school. That evening, I was in our living room, playing with my Barbie (or something) and my mother wanted to know what happened at school. "Nothing," was my answer. A few minutes later, my dad asked, what happened at school. "Nothing," I told him. When the question came a third time, I thought I knew what they wanted to know. Something HAD happened at school.

On my knees, I looked up at my parents and told them, "We had to run from the bus to get into the school."

You already know that the next question was, "Why?"

"Because the niggers were coming!" Hey, I was a kid and I had never been in the company of an adult who didn't at least like me. I had never heard the word, "nigger," (no, I had not yet read Tom Sawyer) -- so, when the angry adults started shouting and teachers herded children from the bus to the school, I ran, too.

It took a while for my parents to get me to understand the concept of what a, "nigger," was. Somehow, it was easier for them to explain that I could never be forced to be a, "nigger," if I chose not to allow it, than it was for them to explain why someone would ever want to apply the term to another human being. Even harder, was the idea that any person or group of people would ever apply the epithet to themselves. I made choices then, and I live with them to this very day.

I have chosen never to use that word in reference to myself, and I do not allow others to apply it to me by virtue of word or deed. I choose to remind young people that most white people (and pretty much anybody else in polite society) do not use that word any more -- they don't have to, not after having taught you to use the word on yourself.

And any one of those choices are only one of the reasons I chose to vote for Barak Obama. That choice is only one of the reasons I wanted to walk into the polling place to cast my vote today. It was my chance to walk into history, and my chance to kick the dust of an historically long road of tragedy and bitterness into the face of bigotry and racism.

I was glad to be there, and I'm glad that when I wake in the morning, my homeland will turn its face to hope and progress. And I'm glad that I had a chance to vote.

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