When I was a little girl, Daddy played “Ol’ Black Joe” on the harmonica, making me cry my eyes out thinking about that old slave saying to those angels calling him, “I’m a-comin’ tho’ my head is bending low.” And old Joe thought he was going to heaven, but I hadn’t seen anything but white angels at church, so I cried harder thinking someone lied to him.
I remember Daddy taking us to Spring Lake Park on steamy summer mornings to spend a dollar for a whole day in the icy blue swimming pool. Driving though colored town, Daddy wondered out loud what those Negro daddies would say to their little kids when they asked to go to that park, right around the corner from where they lived. Would they say no, that’s only for white kids? Or would they say they didn’t have a dollar? With a lump in my throat, I always hoped they’d say it was about the money.
I remember Momma saying that just because Grandpa used the n-word didn’t mean that we could, and to never, ever say it because it’s wrong, and we don’t talk that way. And the very next time Cleo the colored girl came to do for Momma, for three dollars and a dime for the bus, my little sister ran through the house screaming the n-word. And Cleo just laughed that big laugh, and then sighed that big sigh, because her feet hurt. And when she’d eat our leftovers, she’d perch on the end of the chair with her knees sideways, never really sitting down in our kitchen, because I guess she didn’t believe it when Momma said she ought to rest her feet.
I remember catching the bus on Saturday mornings to ride downtown to the big library, where I could check out as many books as I could carry. I never saw Negro kids there, and when I asked why, my aunt told me they couldn’t read and their hands were dirty and anyway they would just tear up the books. But they could surely ride our bus to work for white folks—because it had a sign that read “Rear Seat for Colored Only.”
I remember all the bad years of dogs and fire hoses and sit-ins and marches, and watching those mean white faces on our little black and white. And “Killers of the Dream,” “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and “Black Like Me.” I remember “Come on people, smile on your brother,” and “He ain’t heavy.” I remember afros, Angela Davis, and Black Pride. And John and Martin getting shot, then Bobby. I remember a neighbor saying this is getting real ugly when he heard about the Black Panthers.
I remember when open housing was proposed in our city, meaning that anybody could buy a house anywhere. And one of the deacons stood up in the church hall and screamed that open housing was the beginning of the end. I got up and walked out.
I remember slowly driving along behind an old truck on the narrow street of that small Texas town, and looking ahead, I could see a tiny pink girl toddling along the road. And the truck stopped and a big, black man in overalls got out and came back to my car window. He said he had been following the little girl for some time. She must be lost, and would I pick her up and call someone, because he just couldn’t.
All of these memories and more bring me to my proud vote for Barack Obama, because I surely made history, for him and for me. I voted for that tall, kindly, smart guy with the big smile. I voted my skin, and his. I also voted my brain and my heart. This wasn’t my little fling at justice-seeking, for there is no such thing as retro-justice. There simply is no comfort for those who were born into brutality and lived out their lives under its hateful gaze. It was, instead, me staking a claim in a just and hopeful future, for all people. I will admit that I did vote for the slaves who were lied to, and I voted for those fathers who had to tell their kids no. I voted for Cleo, with her big voice and bad feet. I voted for the kids who weren’t allowed to check out books, and I voted for those folks who so bravely dressed in their Sunday best to walk out and sit in, to face the curses and spit, the dogs and fire hoses, and the bully uniforms with brutal clubs. I voted for people who just wanted to buy a house in our neighborhood and send their kids to our bright, shiny school. I voted for that man who didn’t dare rescue but wouldn’t take his eyes off a little lost girl. I voted, so earnestly and importantly, for my grandchildren who will never have to see what I saw, or have such things explained to them. But most of all, I voted for my Mother and Father, southern, white, and long gone, who planted seeds of justice in me that grew tall and green and wide. How could they know that one day I would walk into an Arkansas courthouse and make history by saying, “I’ll take a paper ballot, please.”