With my hand on the pearls she gave me as graduation gift, I said a prayer, shed a tear and said her name: “Granny, this vote is for you.”
Ms Rose won’t be here to see the returns come in later today, whatever the outcome might eventually be. Like many of the Black and indigenous women whose blood, sweat, and tears form the foundations of this country, she didn’t live to experience the full promise of this great experiment known as America.
Granny died two weeks before election day.
For nearly half her 98 years, Ms Rose was ineligible to vote – subject to a society that deemed women who looked like her worthy of being silenced. Even after the 19th amendment gave white women the right to vote, Black women remained disenfranchised.
Neither the 19th nor the 15th amendment, which granted Black men their rights a century prior, addressed voter suppression in the form of Jim Crow laws that perpetuated segregation, legalized discrimination and barred Black communities from voting through poll taxes and literacy tests, or just plain threats of violence.
Born in 1922 – two years after women’s suffrage – she entered a world in which Black women were “pulled in two directions”: fighting alongside Black men for racial equality and White counterparts for women’s rights, all while relegated as inferior and excluded within both movements.
But in 1967, Granny put herself and her family on a journey, escaping the violence of Jim Crow and patriarchy in Arkansas to forge a new life in Wisconsin, a journey taken by hundreds of thousands of Black Americans who fled discrimination in the south during the Great Migration for better opportunity of the north.
For Black journalists, our commitments to tell these stories would not be possible without the sacrifice of women like her.
The woman who would brag she shared the same 4 August birthday as America’s first Black president, Barack Obama, couldn’t hold on to witness the possible election of the first Black, female vice-president. Doctors confirmed her health had steadily declined ever since the last birthday she and the president shared.
This year is defined by a coronavirus pandemic that has largely impacted people of her age, race and gender and forced her to spend the final weeks of her life alone, losing the will to hold on. For many families, the outcome of the election could determine how routine Granny’s story becomes.
The Democratic senator Kamala Harris once said: “The litmus test for America is how we are treating Black women,” and the unprecedented national crises of a pandemic, a recession and and a social justice uprising only exposed the mirage of progress in dealing with America’s oldest virus: institutional racism.
Throughout American history, Black women have been victimized by public health inequities including unequal access to care, environments that create or worsen pre-existing conditions, and a maternal morality rate more than three times that of White women.
Implicit racial bias can even create barriers to having our pain and suffering believed by our communities and medical professionals. Experts have pinpointed this inequality as a factor in why African American women are more likely to have negative outcomes from contracting the virus.
As 11% of all essential workers, despite being only 6% of the workforce, Black women have faced the brunt of the pandemic’s impact and the recession that followed. Since February, about 1.4 million jobs held by Black women have been eliminated.
The coronavirus only worsened existing inequality that has allowed America’s most educated demographic to be subject to the worst income gap and massive student debt – barriers to creating generational wealth.
But America’s most consistent voters – and Democrats’ most loyal bloc – have been stepping forward to hold political parties accountable to their vote, armed with a national history of experience that proximity to community doesn’t guarantee a commitment to it.
“Democrats have been taking Black women for granted,” Angie Nixon of Jacksonville, Florida, told me, explaining why she’s part of a record number of Black women running for office this cycle. “We’ve been the ones that have been turning out for the longest and we are going to lead this movement.”
Since the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Black women have raised their voices as the most reliable voting bloc in America. I hope to have captured that demand for agency in our own storytelling with our Black Voting Power series – highlighting the Black men and women at the forefront of the fight for voting rights and calls for institutional change.
Those calls will ring out well past election day, and I know it’s Ms Rose’s 60-year-old sacrifice that allows me to continue conveying the pulse of the people politics and punditry leaves out. Women like Granny, who couldn’t live to hear or read her story told.
She was my hero, a human lesson that women aren’t property to be controlled but free individuals worthy of the agency to forge our own destinies.
It’s likely the weight of her legacy that forced my pen to shake and the pearls to rattle while I filled in my ballot. Desmond Meade, a voting rights campaigner in Florida, offered the most powerful words to describe his experience voting for the first time in more than 30 years after experiencing disenfranchisement.
“When I walked into that voting booth, I took the spirit of my ancestors with me, thinking about how many people have died, were hung on trees, bitten by dogs, sprayed with firehouses,” he said. “They overcame all that.
“Covid is nothing compared to what our ancestors went through to secure the right to vote for all of us.”
I didn’t anticipate Granny would be one of those ancestors whose spirit would hold me up as I held on to her pearls.
Black women are exceptionally impacted by three national crises yet are still most often left out of policy, excluded from news coverage, and most easily stereotyped. For every one of the ancestors who couldn’t make it to this day, we say your names.
This election day, we take the spirit of our ancestors like Ms Rose, and every Black man and woman whose story has never, or is just yet to be, told. We forge our futures cloaked in the legacies of our past.
Ancestors, this vote is for you.