op-ed: accountability is also our ancestors’ wildest dreams

June 21, 2019
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I can’t believe in 2019 a racist like Strom Thurmond is trending on Twitter. Then again, with the current state of the country anything is possible at this point. America has seemingly become an episode of Black Mirror. Things that were only wildly imaginable happening right before us testing the bounds of limits of our “laws”, which seemingly have never applied to powerful white men. This week’s episode included Democratic front runner Joe Biden, discussing a time when “civility” was much better when he worked with friends like segregationists like Thurmond, a man my family knows all too well.

Joe Biden ended up in hot water again this week when trying to make an analogy about how America used to have “civility” even in disagreement, something that both parties are unable to do anymore. To make it plain, he described his relationship with famous segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond, and how even though he didn’t agree with his views they still worked together for many years. Biden even spoke at the well-known racists’ funeral in 2003 for good measure.

Strom Thurmond was known for his anti-black racists sentiments as the United States Senator of South Carolina. South Carolina also happens to the be the state that my grandmothers’ side of the family is from—he is a man that we know all too well. Strom Thurmond served 48 years in the Senate. His main claim to fame is that he conducted the longest filibuster (24 hours, 18 minutes) to oppose the Civil Rights Act of 1957. He is also quoted as saying “I have done more for Black people than any other person in the nation, North or South”.

Seeing all the chatter of both parties taking digs or supporting Joe Biden in his statements got me a bit in my feelings. One, this isn’t just simply the next talking point in Democrats journey to try and overturn Trump. Secondly, this is some point for Republicans to use as a grandstand item about “working on both sides despite having differing opinions.” The ability for white people in power to have “civil” conversations and existence with well-known racists to the point that they can call them friends is a nod to civility being an option only for the privileged.

I sat on the subject all day and finally text my mother and aunts later in the evening. The text was simple. “Didn’t Nanny (my grandmother) mother work for Strom Thurmond”.

My mother responded swiftly with the following.

“Yes. Grandma Lulamae worked for them. She always wanted him to die before she did. Sucker lived to be 99 or 100 I think”

I instantly teared up. Days prior I had received a photo of me as a baby sitting on her lap. The matriarch of my family who unfortunately didn’t outlive the oppressor she was forced to work for to provide for her family. I looked at it again last night and wondered what her dreams were for me. Better yet, what her dreams were for herself. A woman who survived the oppression of Strom Thurmond to now only be an ancestor watching her babies potentially vote for a man that called her oppressor a friend.

We often talk about our ancestors “wildest dreams” when we see Black achievement. But what does it look like for my grandmother LulaMae’s wildest dream to have been for her great grandson hold men accountable for their “civility” towards her oppressor? I’m expected to vote to get Trump out of office. I’m expected to give that vote to the Democratic frontrunner despite my feelings because of “harm reduction” or putting the greater good first. This ask is likely for men and women who did nothing when they had power to change the existence of our parents, grands, and greats.

And most of the time I do. But sometimes the trauma is too deep. The wounds are too personal and no matter how much spinning his Black advisors do, accountability must be asked for. When Black folks ask for civility, we are often met with our death. Civility is a word only afforded to white folks because despite their “disagreements” on racism, they will all benefit from white supremacy.

So, for Great Grandma LulaMae I write this. And for all the Black ancestors who are watching us having to make decisions on people who played nice with their most visible oppressors. We have a decision to make. When does enough become enough? When do we stop letting them use us as the “token” vote without accountability for their words and actions? I know for me it is today. And my refusal to let the Joe Biden’s “slip of the tongue” slide is truly my sharp-tongued great grandmother LulaMae’s wildest dream.

Writer and author, George Johnson is bringing our viral conversations to real life situations.