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Things Ain’t Always Gone Be This Way

Honorée Fanonne Jeffers on how her mother overcame voter suppression and became an activist in her community.

That year I was nine years old and Mama took me canvassing with her. She greased and brushed my hair into two ponytails, decorated them with yarn ribbons, and dressed me in a cute dress and ankle socks with my comfortable shoes. And she explained what our job would be.

We had to walk around the Black neighborhoods—for Durham was still de facto segregated—and get as many Black people to register to vote for the presidential election as possible. And we had to tell them about the best candidates for local positions, too. Some of those local candidates weren’t Black, but they were friends to our communities, and we had to support those candidates. It wasn’t enough to vote for president of the United States. You had to vote for the mayor of your town or city, the members of the city council, and the board of education. You had to vote every time an election came around. And Black folks literally had died to secure our right to vote. So voting wasn’t just about rights, Mama told me. It was about the fact that we needed to honor the Black folks who had come before us, the ones who weren’t here anymore.

She spoke to me as if I knew what she meant about politics. I didn’t know at all, but I nodded gravely in response. Fortunately, I didn’t have to memorize that information, because when Mama knocked on the door, she already had her speech prepared: She was registering Black folks to vote because Gerald Ford had been Richard Nixon’s right-hand man during his presidential administration, and Nixon had lied when he said he hadn’t been a crook. And now, Ford—she never called him “President Ford”—had pardoned Nixon, and that ought to tell us all we needed to know. Mama talked about the other, local candidates, too, those who were friends to the Black community in Durham.

There was one home we stopped by, small and neat with a short stack of steps and a few flowers in the yard. That day, the lady who answered the door was light-skinned and maybe forty-five, though again, I was nine, so she probably seemed ancient to me. Her face was apathetic, and she sighed in a bored way as she explained, it didn’t matter who somebody voted for president, because these White folks were going to do whatever they wanted.

I expected my mother to correct the light-skinned lady. Maybe even start shouting, because Mama wasn’t known for holding her tongue. Instead, she nudged me toward the lady, asking, was her message of futility what we wanted to send to our children? That they didn’t have any power? That they couldn’t ever change their circumstances? Mama’s voice had turned “proper,” the accent of a schoolteacher who had graduated from Spelman College and had a master’s degree from another university as well.