In this beautifully written essay at Kenyon Review, the poet Honorée Fanonne Jeffers recounts her mother’s efforts to overcome voter suppression in Georgia, and as a 9-year old, her own special role in helping elderly Black people to vote in the 1976 U.S. presidential election.
We had to walk around the Black neighborhoods—for Durham was still de facto segregated—and get as many Black people to register to vote for the presidential election as possible.
There was one home we stopped by, small and neat with a short stack of steps and a few flowers in the yard. That day, the lady who answered the door was light-skinned and maybe forty-five, though again, I was nine, so she probably seemed ancient to me. Her face was apathetic, and she sighed in a bored way as she explained, it didn’t matter who somebody voted for president, because these White folks were going to do whatever they wanted.
I expected my mother to correct the light-skinned lady. Maybe even start shouting, because Mama wasn’t known for holding her tongue. Instead, she nudged me toward the lady, asking, was her message of futility what we wanted to send to our children? That they didn’t have any power? That they couldn’t ever change their circumstances? Mama’s voice had turned “proper,” the accent of a schoolteacher who had graduated from Spelman College and had a master’s degree from another university as well.
I thought the lady would close the door on us, but she looked at me and smiled. Told me, I sure had some pretty long hair, and Mama nudged me again.
“Tell the nice lady who you want to be president, baby.”
On cue, I said, “I’m voting for Jimmy Carter!”
Mama held out the registration clipboard and pen to the lady, and after some hesitation, the lady took both and wrote down her information.
On voting Tuesday that year, Mama picked me up after school and drove us to the polls. She told me she had a very important job for me to do. But first, she needed to remind me of how I was reared, how I should remember to respect my elders.
She explained that I would take the hand of each old, Black person she would send my way. These would be people who couldn’t read. They knew the candidates they wanted to vote for, but because they couldn’t recognize the names on the ballot, they needed me to call out all the names for them, and then, they’d tell me which of those names they wanted to vote for.