It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.
What the hell is a Scalawag?
I planned to wear a purple ball gown with a flashing crimson silk cape to the polls this year.
I had planned to vote at the poll on Election Day.
But because this is 2020, "Make plans, and God laughs" is more like "Make plans and God sneers." So I will not be going to my local precinct on Election Day.
While others jumped at the chance to vote absentee as it increasingly became the more appealing option, I struggled with the decision until the last week of early voting in North Carolina.
I love the pomp and circumstance of voting even if the chorus of horns that accompanies my balloting is only in my head, and my poll site is a dingy concrete-block community hall.
As much as I know inherently that the electoral system leaves so many behind—the Black, the queer, the nontraditional family, the immigrant, the rural, those with records, the insurance-less, those of us in states that don't "matter"—a lifetime of civic education indoctrinated me to believe the act of exercising this right is my highest function as a citizen.
And I wanted to dress for it. I'm sentimental like that.
I love the Black Southern culture of voting, showing up and showing out in your Sunday best. I love the older men crushing their hats in their hands when they cross the poll threshold, the women with tweedy suits and feathers in their feminine fedoras, my father dressing to vote before work with his newsboy hat, Members Only jacket and wide-leg slacks.
Sartorial ritual has its place at the polls. Sarah McNamara, a Texas-based professor of Latinx and immigration history, doesn't go formal. She's worn the same "Rock the Vote" T-shirt, jeans and boots for every presidential election since 2008, the first she could vote in.
This year, I wanted to celebrate being out of the house after months of coronavirus containment. I wanted to pay homage to my grandparents—modest Black farmers in the Pee Dee country of South Carolina—and the fact that they had only been allowed to vote in their twilight years.
I wanted to honor my father, who died during this pandemic. He was utterly clear, even through dementia, that he wanted to vote against Trump. He talked about politics with abandon, amazing political recall and a mean squinty eye at the communal dining table—even as the only Black man in his hometown's Appalachian nursing home.
It was no small act of courage to do so.
He lived among and was cared for by Trump supporters he could not escape and upon whom he relied.
I have thought often about his last vote, a negative review of a regime he detested.
His memory loss came with a side helping of paranoia, but he never forgot to vote, and never failed to make sure I did. His suspicion that his neighbor in the room next door was a casual white supremacist was not his imagination.
Intimidation does not just take the form of overt voter suppression or Trump-train caravans gleefully boxing in a Biden-Harris cavalcade on a Texas highway.
In 2018, I pulled up to my precinct—a local American Legion lodge—to vote in the midterm election. It was a fall day after a night of rain, but warmish. I stepped from my car and made a beeline away from the usual parking-lot swarms of folks with pamphlets trying to sway last-minute voters.
I also noticed a line of men in front, with motorcycles and beards just a touch short of ZZ Top length. I noticed them noticing me.
I entered the building and released out a deep breath I didn't know I was holding. The poll workers inside were all Black women. One confirmed my existence through the voter files, called me "baby," and I noticed her noticing my shirt.
I looked down and saw that the black T-shirt I'd thrown without so much as a glance said in big red letters: "Unapologetically Black." I pushed my ballot in the machine and proceeded to my car, as those men leaned on their bikes.
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Those watchers may have just been friends enjoying the sun and coffee on an autumn day. Regardless of their intent, those bearded bikers are part of the reason why I wanted to go to the polls on Election Day.
I wanted to be a visible Black presence at the ballot box, to show anyone noticing me we are not scared by the gleeful torchbearers of Charlottesville—or the 10 millionth dog whistle emanating from the White House.
But we are anxious. We can be ready and still yet simultaneously unprepared for some fresh hell of racial or political violence. A few weeks ago, my mother told me a story—maybe a new electoral legend for our generation—of a Black woman stopping at a North Carolina gas station. As she filled her tank, an armed white man stepped behind her and flashed a gun. "You'd better vote for Trump," the story went.
These kinds of stories—urban legends and even conspiracy theories—serve a function: to warn us against real dangers.
So, against my initial inclination and for my mother's peace of mind, I voted early.
Leaving Duke's alumni center, I peeled the cute "No Bull! I Voted" sticker off my light sweater (no ball gown) before going grocery shopping. I didn't want to engage with the diverse political masses at Target. As I approached my car, I recalled leaving the polls in 2018 and what I'd done apprehensively while I walked briskly to my car.
I'd positioned my key—sharp point facing outward—in my fist so I could stab an attacker in the soft, spongy flesh of the eye. If I needed to. My father taught me that too.