andrew gillum: identity, blackness and political change
November 5, 2018
It is astounding that Conservative rhetoric has managed to attach a tenet of shame to the politicization of identity when it is one’s identity that largely determines how politics will affect your life and livelihood. For Andrew Gillum, this journey to the Florida Governor’s mansion is as personal as it can get, as the candidate walks around as a living manifestation of what it might look like for power to be reclaimed by the historically powerless.
Gillum comes from a Black working-class family. He graduated from an HBCU, Florida A&M University. He represents a kind of Blackness unaccounted for in higher politics: a Blackness unsanitized by white institutions which attempt to produce a palatable version that would toe the line of the derogatory racial epithets that frame the Black identity in the United States.
His mother woke every morning at 4 am to drive a school bus and worked as a presser in a dry-cleaner when she wasn’t driving church parishioners at night. His father was a construction worker that sold produce on a street corner when work was hard to come by. The Gillum children would sell cheap warehouse clothes at a flea market to contribute to a household constantly in survival mode. Gillum understands the meaning of a living wage and what it can mean for families like his.
Andrew’s parents, Frances and Charles, as well as his brothers Chuck, Patrick and Eric have all had run-ins with law enforcement. Chuck, Patrick and Eric have all served time, paying their dues for actions born out of a desperate need to feed their family, who shared everything from clothes to beds as well as the responsibility of keeping the household afloat. As the first of the Gillum children to graduate high school and college, Andrew’s path has strikingly diverged from that of his brothers but his family has gifted him with an understanding of the implications of felony discrimination in the workplace, and felony disenfranchisement in relation to voting rights being stripped away. Once again, the personal is political and Andrew is parlaying his desire to empower his own family (his personal) into a political movement that includes “ban the box,” which constitutes prohibiting the declaration of a criminal record on job applications.
No other Governor in Floridian history can claim to understand the experiences of the average Floridian like Gillum can. In fact, it has been two decades since a Florida Governor was born and raised in the state. Also, Gillum isn’t like any candidate for Governor Florida has ever seen. Obviously. The man is Black. In fact, he is Blackity Black Black. His Blackness isn’t something he feels he needs to play down in order to appeal to sensibilities of the “economically anxious” majority. While Gillum navigates the election, comfortable in his identity, his opponents have sought to weaponize his race (as whiteness does) by playing to bottom-of-the-barrel racist tropes. Republican opponent Ron DeSantis’ assertion that Floridians shouldn’t “monkey this up” followed by egregious robo-calls with negro-spirituals and claims of chicken bones being responsible for Gillum’s success.
Those tactics energize the worst of the Conservative base; those that would happily offer their right to health care or a living wage as kindling for the raging fire that is white supremacy. Gillum is speaking directly to that racism, in a way no candidate has before without being accused of pulling the “race card.” Van Newkirk said it best, “Gillum reflects a new potential pathway for that opposition, one that sees combating racism and bigotry as an opportunity and not as a political minefield.”
In a Democratic party that often used Black people as voter reserves without speaking to the systemic racism that forces them to latch on to the “lesser of two evils,” candidates like Gillum represent a political movement that works for the sustained liberation of Black and Brown people. Gillum came into this race with that knowledge and a willingness to fight to get the largely suppressed Black and Latino populations to the polls when the popular sentiment around voting in those communities is, what is the point?
Andrew Gillum is ushering in the return of the public servant that was sidelined for the elite, white-male power-play politics. He carries a history that Conservatives weaponize against Black people on a daily basis, but Andrew is declaring his life experiences as his strength, going so far as using them as the foundational pillars of his campaign. Growing up in a Black family constantly near-poverty, with siblings in and out of jail would disqualify any other candidate at any other time but despite the efforts of Republicans to do so, Gillum’s reach expands because his mission is personal. In his quest to better the lives of his family, he is bringing the state of Florida along for the ride.
That has always been his mandate. It’s the “Bring It Home” mentality instilled by his grandmother, who was the only child in her family to go to grade school, often encouraged to bring her education home to share with her family. That’s what Gillum intends to: bring the power for meaningful change home, to his family, and to Florida.
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