Election 2020: I am not my ancestors

October 13, 2020

Today begins early voting in Texas. Given the rampant racial injustice climate and voter suppression efforts, I was determined to get in line early and before the doors opened at 8:00 am. As I stood in line, I started humming Mahalia Jackson’s version of “How I Got Over” from the March on Washington in 1963. I instantly felt a sense of emotion that I did not expect. At that moment, a flood of memories passed through my mind.

First, I transcended back to 1990, my freshman year at North Carolina A&T State University. I was registered to vote in New York but volunteered for Charlotte (NC) Mayor Harvey Gantt’s U.S. Senate campaign. Mayor Gantt was trying to unseat incumbent Senator Jesse Helms, who had been in office since 1972. During one of our campaign trainings, we were told about the possibility of efforts to suppress the Black vote in Greensboro. Although I started canvassing on political campaigns as a teenager in New York, I was not prepared for my election day experiences. Mayor Gantt lost the election. However, I learned and witnessed the power of the Black vote, Jim Crow politics was not dead, and there were concerted efforts to quiet the voices within Black communities.

I next thought of a conversation with my father, who was raised in a small city in North Carolina. Until my late 30s, I’d never paid attention to the fact that my father had never been to the movies with me. As cable television gained popularity in the 1980s, he would always say, “it’ll be on cable soon.” That made sense until period movies started playing. It was then that my father shared his experiences with segregation growing up in the South and how going to the movies was not an exciting activity for him. He shared about the separate entry door and balcony seating area for Black people that was rarely cleaned. My father opened the door for many conversations that anchored my desire to teach political science once I transitioned from a public service career. It also served as the impetus for my travels around the country to learn more about Black history and the Civil Rights Movement from the foot soldiers that were still around to share.

My final memory was of my trip to Alabama last year. I spent a week following the United States Civil Rights Trail through Birmingham, Selma, and Montgomery. I met so many people from all races that shared their experiences during that time. If I had the time, they gifted me with priceless stories that I can never get from books. With each conversation, I obtained a level of peace and understanding about my current responsibilities to the Black community in this moment and for the future generations that I will never know. I also needed to honor those that protested injustices, were beaten, and gave their lives for my right to vote by walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. For those that have visited Selma, you know that the bridge is busy and that I probably would not get across on foot in normal circumstances. On my last day in Selma, the Edmund Pettus Bridge was closed to traffic and created an opportunity for me to walk across. A few college students on Spring Break were walking across as well, and as we talked, they documented the moment.

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This morning was an emotional experience, and I couldn’t understand why until those memories started coming to mind. While I hummed Mahalia Jackson and thought about each of those moments, I reflected on how heavy the burden has been for the Black community over the past few years, especially in 2020. I know this election season is different and will probably be the most important during my lifetime. It will hold a deeper meaning as it probably sets the trajectory of what equality and equity means in this country for us now and the many generations that will follow.

As I think about what’s next, the phrase floating through social media, “I am not my ancestors,” comes to mind. While I know this has been used as a message to combat the mistreatment and injustices from those who have continued to push for oppressive practices, I choose to view it differently. It is true; I AM NOT my ancestors. I have not sacrificed as they did to afford me the opportunities that I now have, despite the burdens that I may feel. My current opportunities are based on the sacrifices and efforts of unsung giants. Just as they have done for me, I must do what I can for future generations.

We cannot wait until election night before deciding what’s next, and we cannot only mobilize around election seasons to make a difference. Today, I want you to be inspired and empowered to be part of the decision-making bodies moving forward. To impact policy and the future, we can no longer rest only in civic engagement. So my call to action is simple. It is now time for my brilliant brothers and sisters to get active in public service, no matter your age or experience. We have to become public servants to learn more about our governments and influence policy changes that can address systemic issues that have plagued the Black community for centuries. Not everyone will be a recognized face, but everyone can be a part of the change. Our opportunities now and those we create for future generations will be based on our ability to build on the foundations set by our unsung giants. My hope now is that some of you will answer this call and create the next level of opportunities and policy moving forward.

Award-winning Professor, Consultant, and Speaker. Former senior government executive. I ignite the power within communities. Let’s Connect: KimberlyONeil.com

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