The immensely popular ABC sitcom “Black-ish” aired a one-hour special on the importance of voting in the upcoming November election. “Black-ish” is known for its sharp examination of American history and culture through racial and political humor. The seventh season this fall will no doubt continue this successful trend, as the national strife of this year has provided plenty of material for its writers to dissect.
Simply titled “Election Special,” part one of this episode begins with the usual witty narration of Dre Johnson, the father of the affluent Johnson clan, an African American family living in a predominantly white suburb of Los Angeles. Dre begins by saying that the American presidential election is the greatest competition in the world, and, unlike the Olympics, there is no silver medal when running for the Oval Office. He ends his opening statements by declaring that our democracy makes us the greatest country on Earth.
The storyline then transitions to his son, Junior, who will be voting for the first time but is shocked to learn that his name has been purged from the registration rolls. Junior begins to research how this error could have happened and ends up getting a sobering history lesson on voter disenfranchisement and slavery. Disappointed and dejected, Junior moans, “Everything we’ve been taught is a lie!”
Slavery has been a central focus of many “Black-ish” episodes that analyze systemic racism, and after Dre sees Junior’s dismay, he envisions a creative way to teach him about the “unfairness of the American political system.” Cue the spoofed game show “Democracy in Jeopardy,” where Dre plays host to three contestants who answer questions about how we elect our presidents. In addressing one contestant who did not have the correct response on why the Electoral College was formed, Dre sarcastically states, “The answer is slavery. The answer is almost always slavery.”
While it is true that slavery played a central role in terms of how Southern states were represented in the electorate, I don’t think we have to lament that everything we have been taught about our democracy is a lie. Rather, I believe a more accurate assessment, which is obvious to all of us who study our history, is that our country has greatly failed in living up to our democratic ideals. Yet, there have always been courageous people fighting for them, even during the horrendous era of slavery.
Look at the preamble to the Constitution. Slaves did not enjoy the “blessings of liberty” or “domestic tranquility.” But early anti-slavery societies after the Revolution, such as the Quakers, were on the frontlines in the fight for freedom long before the struggle for the ballot box. When the abolitionist movement caught fire in the 1830s, largely due to the ongoing religious revival of the Second Great Awakening, free Blacks in the North were able to look to their local churches as a refuge in their efforts to secure rights.
I find this period inspiring due to the grassroots efforts of white Protestants such as Theodore D. Weld, who studied at Oberlin College. Weld blatantly called out the dreadful sins of Southern bondage as an affront to God. In “The Bible Against Slavery,” Weld passionately wrote, “The spirit of slavery never seeks shelter in the Bible, of its own accord. … Like other unclean spirits, it ‘hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest its deeds should be reproved.’”
Weld eventually lost hope for reform, but the abolitionist movement continued, even with factions. It ended when African American men gained the right to vote after the 15th Amendment was ratified in 1870. It would take nearly a century to get to the Voting Rights Act, which outlawed discriminatory polling practices enforced by the South after the Civil War. “Election Special” ends with Junior pondering the future of voting rights for minorities as he decides to re-register at the urging of his father.
Many young people like Junior’s character in “Black-ish” are frustrated by what they are currently witnessing in politics as they prepare to vote in their first election. Older Americans are also exasperated. I will be prayerfully casting my vote this year, and, like Dre, I still believe in our nation’s democratic values. We just have to maintain our faith in continuing to cultivate them.
Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. @JjSmojc