On Our Black Backs: Why My Grandmother Deserves Better than Hillary, Bernie and Barack

Ever since Senator Bernie Sanders announced that he would be running for President of the United States, I have felt like a fraudulent progressive. Though often outspoken about all things political, I have found myself oddly quiet this election season. I have avoided public forums, political-activist spaces and many invitations to assist in organizing around either Democratic candidate. Even now, when it has become clear that Hillary Clinton will likely win the Democratic nomination I am uneasy sharing the convoluted intricacies of how and why I’ve voted as I have. Organizations, individuals and radical publications at which I have worked or else payed close attention to have spent the past year bombarding me with messages about why Senator Sanders—despite his shortcomings—was the nominee that we had all been waiting for. Though I understood where they were coming from, the first time I heard this sentiment expressed, I couldn’t help but to think about how my family, and millions of other black American families were proof-incarnate that an old white man living in Vermont who still struggled to wrap his thin lips around phrases like “American racism,” and “racialized generational poverty” could never solve the specific problems we faced.

Home for me is Savannah, Georgia, but my grandmother—who I call Nana—grew up dirt poor in Little Rock, Arkansas. Nana was twelve years old and still living in Little Rock when a hateful white man with the title of Governor before his name and the unshakeable power of American racism behind it called in the Arkansas National Guard to prevent nine black teenagers from integrating Central High School. One day later, President Eisenhower responded by sending the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division to escort those students into a school the constitution guaranteed them the right to attend. All the while, grown men and women who called themselves Christians, but who were really nothing more than unexceptional Americans, flung spit, hatred, rocks and insults at a group of courageous teenagers who embodied everything America wanted to be, but will likely never become.

At thirteen my grandmother would see that same hateful governor retaliate against equality and reaffirm a long tradition of American hatred, denial and petulance by shutting down every high school in the city for an entire year.  Thirty-six years later, an American president and exceptional engineer of black American suffering by the name of Bill Clinton would sign the 1994 Violent Omnibus Crime Bill.

—–

Most of Nana’s family still lives in Little Rock, but when I was growing up the distance made it hard for us to see each other. Still, any chance she got, Nana would pile whoever she could into my Uncle’s van and make the 12 hour ride from Savannah back to her hometown. I don’t remember much, but the thing I remember most about our trips to Arkansas was how few men there were around. For the most part, the only men I ever remember seeing were really just boys who, despite their height, were probably not that much older than me. They came in and out of the house and greeted us with a slight nod of their heads before passing out on the couch in front of the TV.

It wasn’t until I was older, that I found out where exactly all the men in my extended family had gone: Some of them hadn’t stayed in the picture long enough for anyone to care where in the world they were; Too many of them were lost in jail, or trying to find themselves and some semblance of purpose in the bottom of a bottle or at the tip of a pipe. At first, none of it made sense to me. I couldn’t figure out why so many members of my family came from homes that looked and felt so different from mine. I was young and blind and privileged enough to still believe that everyone had someone they called daddy. I thought everyone’s mommy was quick to yell, but even quicker to smile at a man who loved her, but could be described as nothing less than the most irritating man on the planet.

But not everyone had that. And not everyone even imagined that they could have that. My black family, like many black families in the US was devastated by the effects of the 1994 Crime Bill. Though the original version never became law, a similar and even more devastating one, would eventually be signed by then-president Clinton. Though he offered the nation plenty of talk about how and why key parts of the bill might ruin American families, at the end of the day, Senator Bernie Sanders still added his signature in support of it becoming legislation.  The act reclassified many low-level crimes as felonies, created longer mandatory sentences, and flooded impoverished streets across the nation with tens of thousands more law enforcement officers. As is always the case, black and brown and poor people were disproportionately affected. Our brothers, fathers, cousins and uncles, all bore the brunt of this injustice with the implicit support of the two major Democratic candidates who seek to become our president.

And while the disproportionate incarceration of the black men in families like my cousins’ is a devastating phenomenon in and of its self, it must be acknowleged, that the injustice does not end there; It doesn’t end with our families now being robbed of a source of income desperately needed in communities  where household income is already low and wealth is virtually nonexistent. It doesn’t end with black families being trapped in a cycle of generational poverty that cares not whether they live, or die, eat or starve, go to college or don’t. It doesn’t end with the psychological trauma that absence and poverty and drugs and alcoholism and despair cause. These effects are not theoretical; they did not occur by accident. They are real, they are living and they are lethal.  No amount of apologies or released-too late “racial-justice” platforms will remedy that.

The last time I visited Little Rock, I was no longer confused. I was mad. I was heartbroken.

—–

At 63 years old, Nana got the chance to cast her vote in support of putting a black man and his black family in the White House. Back then, she still had her voice and I remember thinking she sounded so incredibly proud every time she talked about “that nickel” she’d helped to put up in the White Man’s House. To this day, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to fully grasp the significance of how truly inconceivable it must have been for a desperately poor little black girl from Little Rock, Arkansas to imagine that one day she’d witness the inauguration of a black man to the US presidency. In her eyes, and in the eyes of many others, that man could do virtually no wrong. Eight years and two terms later, we all know that to be false. But despite his faults and future mistakes, 2008 Obama made each and every one of us believe that he saw us, he heard us, and that no matter what he’d have our backs. We opened our arms, went to the polls and promised him the same. The poorest and the richest among us, rallied behind the fact that a black man, a black woman and two little black girls had made it to a place they were never meant to be. We knew that their success was our success and unlike large factions of the American populace, we did not view it as an end to anything, but rather as the beginning we had been dreaming of. Finally, blackness would be brought directly to the epicenter of American faux-mocracy in a capacity that could no longer be ignored.

For us, a black man winning a US presidential election did not mean that this country we loved and hated so much had miraculously delivered itself from its genocidal and racist past; It did not mean that this country would be forgiven for keeping us in chains, behind bars, and firmly beneath the boot of white supremacy. We knew our country, its leaders and its citizens for what and who they were and so we did not waste a minute thinking that a black man—no matter how mixed or educated—could ever be the one to absolve America of its sins.

We were filled with a hope which sustained us and perhaps made us more vulnerable and American than many of us had ever remembered being. History should have taught us that America would only allow us to take as many steps forward as it was comfortable with before shutting everything down. History should have taught us, that a black man—no matter how moderate, or even-keeled he was—could only make it so far in a system built on the backs of people who looked like him.  And still, despite all of his faults, so many of us are still madly in love with him. So many of our grandmothers have his picture hanging on their walls as though he were a cousin or uncle we hadn’t seen in a while; So many of us have played, and re-played, and played once more his rendition of Amazing Grace in a southern church where nine black people bent their knees and had their lives stolen by yet another hateful white man. We have fawned over the growth of his daughters as though they were our own daughters. We felt his joy as our joy, when he and Michelle and Virginia McLaurin did a dance to celebrate blackness, progress and resiliency. Despite his back-door approach to policy, his political mumbo-jumbo and feigned colorblindness, we knew for a fact that his blackness would never allow him to sincerely believe for even a second that America was any less invested in upholding the ideals of white supremacy than it had ever been. And while he might not have had first-hand experience with racialized generational poverty, over-policing, alcoholism, debilitating drug use and trauma-tinged violence, we could imagine that he, like us, might have a cousin who did.

—–

Herein lies my ambivalence with voting for Bernie Sanders. All that I have described above was my first introduction to the American political process. President Barack Obama was the first person I had the privilege of voting for and I likely won’t ever experience that level of enthusiasm, investment and sheer hope for the future in voting again. Bernie has an incredibly consistent and honest record on supporting human rights and economic justice. But to put it bluntly, I am not convinced that he understands systemic racism, possibly because he has chosen to remain willfully ignorant of it. Too often, he has treated this very real force which has literally made the lives of my Nana’s children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews infinitely more difficult and painful than the lives of his own nieces, nephews and children grandchildren, as a cumbersome book-end to his economic platforms. And while it is true that economic reform will do much to help black families it is not only ignorant, but also incredibly harmful and invalidating to presume that purely economic solutions will adequately resolve racial issues.

I voted for Bernie Sanders and will likely do it again if given the chance because his politics are those which most closely mirror my own in a presidential field littered with fascists, neo liberals and political dynasties. Bernie won my support because people like my Nana and my cousins deserved better economic conditions and support than they had. They deserve better than federal and local officials who may have won their hearts, and yet took no issue with perpetuating their suffering; They deserve better than officials who prefer to act as if they do not exist.

But these concessions do not exempt Sanders from critique. They do not release him from his conscious and unconscious participation in the destabilization of families like my own by way of supporting disproportionately harmful legislation. While he has my support, it is important to acknowledge that I do not do so enthusiastically. My support comes wrapped in the sour knowledge that the electability and popularity of candidates even as seemingly progressive as Bernie Sanders, will always depend upon their support for implicitly and explicitly anti-black legislation; that any candidate’s electability depends upon the subjugation of my black family and millions of other black families both in this country and abroad. For this reason and many others, I will continue to struggle with the decision to support a candidate that I don’t necessarily believe in. And though it is an incredibly hard pill to swallow especially within the context of the hope which President Obama’s campaigns inspired in me and many others, I know that my decision is the best I could have made given the situation.

Bernie’s class-based platform is not enough and it never will be, no matter what his most ardent supporters say. He and it and America are certainly not enough for those of us who were forced to live in conditions deprived of resources, opportunities and hope. He and it and America are not even enough for those of us who are black, but got lucky enough to claw our way out of the ghettos that too many of us still inhabit. He and it are not enough for a community that is sick of being pandered to for just long enough for “progressive” candidates to ride a tide of black support into the White House before the voting bloc that got them there is promptly ignored, silenced, and forgotten. We are tired of false promises and old white men and women who never bothered to get to know us, but believe they know more about who we are, what we need, and who we can become than we ourselves do. We are tired of condescension, entitlement and white saviors who either forget or ignore that they are the ones that created the conditions which allowed so many of the issues that plague our communities to thrive. I will vote for Bernie knowing all the while that oftentimes even the best option, is not good enough.

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