[Original poem written in honor of the 50th Anniversary of the 1965 U.S. Voting Rights Act. Performed at Java Monkey Speaks poetry open mic in Atlanta, GA on August 9th, 2015. Words below.]
She takes a long drag from her cigarette
and releases the smoke into the night air.
It hovers thick over Atlanta.
We sit atop the roof of her building downtown,
each downing our third beer,
letting the conversation flow
wherever it feels needed.
Politics interjects, and the circus of candidates
closely follows. I tell her how
I’ve never voted for a president,
and really didn’t plan to.
She holds her breath and lets the tobacco
work its magic. But her eyebrows
tell me everything I need to know.
I can see the unmistakable disdain,
the coddling look of pobrecito
mixed with anger over the waste.
I begin preparing myself for the assault
that is soon to follow. I wait, ready
for the infuriated strike, but her eyebrows
shift, and all she says is Why?
I’ve fought this battle before of different fields,
and I launch my strategic artillery
like a political symphony.
The Electoral College is its own literacy test.
And the hurdle is reading how to trust ourselves
to care enough to know more
of the back-channeling politics than the polished front
presented to us in Civics class.
Because our governments don’t trust us
to make the right choices, so they really only
let a few members choose. A government
for certain people, of certain people, by certain people.
She lets me finish and then responds
to my litany like a chorus:
Justin, you have to vote.
Justin, you have to vote.
Justin, you have to vote,
In 1965, the Voting Rights Act passes.
President Lyndon B. Johnson says the word negroes
so many times in his announcement speech,
as if telling a man what he is isn’t awkward enough.
In 2013, the Supreme Court extracts the teeth
from the very same Voting Rights Act –
like a backwoods southern dentist with homebrew anesthetic.
Literacy tests, poll taxes, and grandfather clauses rise
from their graves and cryptic-crawl back into the house.
Of the ruling, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said
Hubris is a fit word for today’s demolition of the V.R.A.
This hubris, this arrogance, is the inbred cousin
of the one that first told us that our children
should only be allowed to try
the ice cream that matches their skin,
that only one will stain your weekend shirt.
Because every Sunday is bloody
from Selma to Montgomery
and Jim Crow still stands out in the middle
of his southern corn rows and crop circles
scaring those who never learned,
or never remember, our history.
I wanted to tell you that
we’re generationally gaining our humanity back.
That the great white nation has returned
from its great white flight and learned
something of other winds.
But I’m not so sure anymore.
It has been 50 years since we first wished
upon a 1965 star, and we still have to whisper
progress to ourselves with every passing century,
or else the wish may get lost in all our hazy rhetoric
and never have a chance to come true.