by Hannah Giorgis
When my father voted in the 2000 election, he cast his ballot for our whole family. My mother waited with bated breath for him to return from the polls, eager to discuss his engagement in the same democratic process that lured them here from Ethiopia in the midst of early 1980s political turmoil. Four years later, she walked into a polling place herself and emerged with a renewed sense of American patriotism.
I spent my formative years in the shadow of my parents’ quest for citizenship and the rights to American Democracy™ that accompanied it. I watched as they pored over standardized American history lessons that featured no mention of Americans with skin like our own, I sat idle as my father beamed with excitement while affixing a large American flag to our roof, and I tried to make sense of their desire to become further entrenched in a political system that tells us each day we are only American when a hyphen precedes the title.
Nine years later, a registered voter myself, I am once again puzzled by this Orwellian disaster we call American politics. Yesterday, the Supreme Court voted to repeal the segment of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that guarantees communities of color the same access to voting rights as our historically protected white counterparts. This blow to the enfranchisement of people of color comes as the latest in a long line of measures guaranteed to suppress the democratic rights of those whose citizenship is never quite valid enough.
It also comes hours before Texas senator Wendy Davis spent 13 hours in a landmark filibuster of SB5, a bill that would restrict abortion access throughout the state of Texas and close clinics that already over-burdened low-income communities and communities of color rely on each day for life-saving healthcare. Senator Davis, whose districts narrowly avoided gerrymandering because of the same section of the Voting Rights Act that died yesterday, was only able to speak on the Senate floor because her constituents were not turned away at the polls.
It is worth noting that Senator Leticia van de Putte, whose courageous words sparked a community uproar, is already being erased from public discourse regarding SB5. It is no coincidence that Senator van de Putte is a woman of color.
Yesterday’s events do not surprise me, nor am I shocked the same Supreme Court that voted to further scrutinize affirmative action policy earlier this week is being lauded for its revolutionary decision to support same-sex marriage today. We operate in a political culture intent on obscuring the big picture, focusing so closely on single-issue struggles that we forget no issue can be separated from the context in which it occurs. This does not mean today’s Defense of Marriage Act decision was not an important one; indeed there is no reason to delight in the continued marginalization of same gender-loving people who desire the right to equal recognition of their partnerships under the law.
But we must push further. I want to know that my parents did not suffer the financial and emotional distress of the naturalization process in vain. I want to know that their participation in a democratic process they still idealize will not be revoked without warning, that the men and women of color who came before me did not die for me to be turned away at the polls as they were. I want immigrant families to see our life-threatening concerns emblazoned across Facebook newsfeeds the way Wendy Davis’s pink sneakers took over my own.
I want homeless queer youth on CNN alongside the white, masculine-presenting gay men who dominate public LGBT discourse. I want trans women of color central to discussions of reproductive and economic justice, not simply hate crime legislation. I want working class women and women of color featured prominently in feminist theory that proclaims Wendy Davis a hero as it misattributes Leticia van de Putte’s quotes to her.
These are not impossible goals. They require us to shift our paradigm, to erase our margins and write creatively. They require us to listen, to re-evaluate, to re-imagine an ethical political process. They require us to be angry, to fight, to back our politicians into corners tighter than the ones they have forced our families into. They require hard work.
There is a reason my parents crossed the Atlantic. For those of us entrenched in our families’ Herculean feat of immigration, some unnamed desire to remain hopeful cannot be vanquished. Perhaps it shouldn’t.
Our families fought borders, oceans, legal systems, and their own fear. If not for ourselves, we owe it to them to reclaim this democratic process. We owe it to them to ensure their hard-fought rights to vote, to fight, to be heard will not disappear quicker than our accents.
This means mobilizing the way our families did so beautifully. This means coming together the way we have seen our communities do. This means research on voting rights legislation, drives to ensure our communities are registered, hours spent working with no pay. This means continuing a legacy whose inheritance emboldens us.
We owe it to them to ensure that our voices will not stop with the state-sanctioned methods of political engagement, that we will think creatively to overcome boundaries and negotiate disparate realities the same way they teach us to do each day. The American dream may be an illusion, but the immigrant child never sleeps.
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Hannah Giorgis is an Ethiopian-American writer, organizer, artist and admittedly self-indulgent blogger. You can check out more of her awkward black girl musings at http://ethiopienne.tumblr.com.
This writer received an honorarium for this work. SUPPORT BGD’s writers and help amplify the voices of queer and trans* people of color!
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