Monday, November 3, 2008

I Am, Because They Were

On August 6, 1965, the Voting Rights Act was signed into law. This embarrassingly overdue piece of legislation guaranteed the right to vote for all Blacks in the United States. Yesterday, a close friend told me that he wasn't going to vote because he just "doesn't do that." "It's your choice," I told him, "but for me, its not an option."

The authors of the Declaration of Independence claims that all men were created equally, providing the false impression that they would be treated as such. But to follow the history of African descendants here in America, its hard to take those words seriously. I don't vote because some celebrity tells me to rock the vote. I don't do it because the candidates commercials, or any other superficial reason. I do it because if I were to pass on this sacred right to be included as a valid voice in this country, the blood, sweat and tears of my ancestors would be all over my hands. Men and women who looked like me were told for years that they were "second-class citizens." Here in the ironically monikered 'land of the free,' African people were anything but and were denied the right to vote among other things.

The same brown skin that India.Arie so eloquently paid homage to in her ballad celebrating our beauty was bruised, beaten and broken on the backs of our slave predecessors. We are now business owners, doctors, professors and lawyers, but then we were called mongrels, savages and niggers. We were forced into this country from our homeland and then persecuted from the moment we arrived here. Now we are here and many of us choose the path of apathy rather than keep the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement alive in our hearts and ever-present in our minds. We were once slaves and servants...the lowest of the low and denied nearly every so-called "basic" American right. Slave families were ripped apart, many never to be reunited again. Small children were pulled from their parents sheltering arms; families robbed of fathers, uncles, brothers and sons...human beings were auctioned as if cattle and handed over to masters to live out their days as cotton pickers or kitchen servants.

The road to being acknolwedged and treated as human beings was paved with many brave men and women who finally decided that enough was enough. They came together and even gave their lives fighting for freedom and equality, knowing that most of what they fought for would not be seen within their lifetime. Now here I am in 2008...I've never been a slave, never known firsthand the pain of my ancestors, never had to fight like the brave soldiers of the civil rights movement. But yet, here I am living the dream that they believed in even to the point of death. They fought for me, without ever having met me, so that I could live as I now do. So for me, voting is not an option. Voting is what I owe to all those who came before me. Its what I owe to all those who never lived to see a day when a little brown-skinned girl in the United States could walk into the polls and have her vote counted just like everyone elses. It's what I owe to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner and all the greats who paved my way to the polls. It's also what I owe to my descendants. I want to pass on to my children an appreciation and reverance for all that our ancestors experienced. Although our lives are much improved, we must never forget what it cost to get us here. That is the legacy that I want to leave for my children.

Even as I write this, I'm fighting back tears...this is no small thing, America. Not only did they struggle so that I'd have the right to be counted, but because of that same struggle, for the first time in our country's history, a man of African descent is a candidate for the highest office in the land. Whether he loses or wins, I admire his courage and strength. At one point in the history of Africans in America, we merely dreamed of being free. Now, because of the bold sacrifices and boundless bravery of our ancestors, Barack Obama is a sign of hope that we can dare to dream any dream and we can go as far as those dreams can take us, no longer oppressed because of the color of our skin. Whatever the results are tomorrow, this 2008 election is already a huge triumph in our country's history.

We've come a long way and still have far to go to fully see Dr. King's dream become a reality. I hope that you all will exercise your right this year and remember all those brave souls who fought hard, but never made it to the polls.