A little over a decade ago, I received one of the best assignments of my newspaper journalism career: At 109, Amanda Jones was likely the oldest active voter in Central Texas.
The middle child of a black family of 13 kids, Jones had several children of her own and 33 grandchildren. She had been a housewife for 72 years. For well over ten years she worked as a maid for $20 a month.
Her family also was a part of a long history of Black Texas that usually goes untold. Part of this is that Texas is not quite the South, though it truly is. Nonetheless, her family goes back five generations in Central Texas; at some point her family had owned 100 acres of land.
But first, her father was a slave. Amanda Jones, the daughter of a slave, was encouraged as soon as she was able to exercise her right to vote. By her formerly enslaved father.
She did so, despite having to pay poll taxes. The first time she voted, and paid for it, was for Franklin Roosevelt.
So it was with a special thrill that her granddaughters, in their sixties and seventies then, informed her that she could now vote not only for the man who would go on to become the first black President — she could do so for free.
I was astonished sitting at Ms. Jones’ knee in the middle of the day when I went to her old house. I was admonished not to come too early because she slept until 11 a.m. When I got there, she didn’t have much to say. “It’s OK,” I said, smiling in spite of myself. “You’ve lived a long life. I can imagine you’re tired of a lot by now. You don’t have to talk if you don’t want to.”
She didn’t smile, not a lot. But she did give me a look — a look I get often, I might add. A kind of respectful twinkle. Like, “I can’t believe you said that aloud, but I appreciate that we’ve cleared the air now.”
Then, as now, I was taken with how gentle she appeared and yet, the incredible fortitude it takes to be a black woman who lives longer than the span of a century. The kind of peace you have to have with your maker, with your mind. The things you must witness. The secrets. The joys.
I couldn’t imagine living that long, or being rooted in one place for such a long time. And yet, what an incredibly prolific and profound life. It was a life that her parents had maybe dreamed of for themselves but didn’t get to reap the harvest of. But behind her was evidence that she got to live out their dream and then some of her own, too. I loved that she had a letter from then-Governor George W. Bush marking the occasion of her 100th birthday. It said so much — about Texas, about the world then, about what gestures like that once meant.
A decade ago this Election Day, this lovely, sweet 109-year-old woman, Amanda Jones, the daughter of a slave, got to see Barack Obama become the first Black president of the United States. Ten years feels, to me, like such a long time. But I suppose it’s all a matter of perspective.
Ms. Jones very much was looking forward to the election. But another important date approached right after — her 110th birthday, on December 16th. After Barack Obama became President, and her story became international news, birthday cards poured in from around the world. She lived to celebrate with her children and her grandchildren. A couple of days after her birthday, though, she went to sleep and didn’t wake up.
Even as someone who once worked for the first Black president; even as someone who volunteered at the Democratic National Convention so that I might have a front row to history in the hopes that I might work for the first woman president; even as someone who canvassed for Hilary Clinton in the heat of Virginia suburbs (wearing the wrong clothes and nearly sweating to death, but knocking on doors nonetheless) and in the apathetic, often polarized living rooms and kitchen counters of cities like Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, I understand why voting is not considered urgent to an untold number of people in our country. I understand why and how black people, especially, have been sold a narrative that not voting is better than picking “the lesser of two evils.” But we only need to look to history in order to see whether apathy or indifference or inaction makes more of a difference than not.
It’s one thing to talk in platitudes about being woke or being progressive; it’s another to see the very fabric of your country destroyed by people who refuse to make a decision. I argue with myself, often, about this idea that if you don’t vote you don’t get to complain — it’s an interesting theory, not without validity.
But I don’t care about what you are or aren’t entitled to talk about. What I care most about is that the system that we have in our country for making political change at this moment is a flawed one. It is not a good system. It is not perfect. It excludes women. It usually excludes black women. For years, it has crushed our lives under the heels of powerful white men. The most powerful of these men right now is a known sexual predator who threatens to turn our democracy into an autocratic fascist regime built on white nationalist rhetoric barely veiled as exceptionalist patriotism.
It is tempting to pull out some really dramatic language here to try and make this case further, but one need only look to encroaching world politics to get a sense of right wing extremism gaining power: In Italy and throughout Europe and certainly with the repugnant Bolsonaro now in power in Brazil. America would like to think of itself as an exception, but in the end, we know the truth: Capitalism wins.
It’s not just about race, or white supremacy or even patriarchal resentment — but that at the end of the day, even as demographics shift and create “economic anxiety” which is really virulent racism, there are many powerful rich people “on both sides” who really appreciate what voting for a mediocre but ruthless malignant narcissist of a businessman has done for their stocks and their financial security.
The most depressing thing about history is watching it repeat itself. The sweet, kind, endearing people — like Amanda Jones — well…the symbolism of their lives is so epic. It is so nice to think about. So comforting. Like the tenth anniversary of the election of Barack Obama and what the Obamas stood for, to say nothing of their actual achievements, we prefer to reach for this sanitized version of our progress, then declare the project of hope and change we can believe in completed.
But if we have not learned anything since November 2016, I hope those of us who were seduced by the façade of racial and social progress, those of us who thought that we had the luxury of not choosing because the whole thing is rigged anyway and why should we even try; I hope that we are aware that opting out is a vote for the hell that we have now to remain and to get worse.
So, no, you don’t have to vote. And yes, you’ll get to complain, even if you don’t. But you do owe it to yourself to think deeply about your investment in desisting from the system that can and will destroy your life.
As for me, whenever I walk myself to the polls every Election Day before and especially since I met Ms. Jones, I think of that thrill she had. How significant it was. How epic.
I thank her for what she endured, and her father, too. So that I might vote without a poll tax. Or, even as voter suppression continues, that I can try to be part of balancing the scales in a part of the country where it has not been as bad as far as I know. I never know what will happen next, but that’s just what life is. All I can do is my part. And thank goodness — it doesn’t cost anything to just show up.