How the respectability politics of being a little black girl drives my vote today

I can’t really speak to what generations after me are doing but I come from a line of matriarchs, aunts and mothers— both biological and social— who don’t take any mess when it comes to how you approach them in conversation.

My Grandma Alice Creque who was my mother’s mommy passed away when I was in middle school but I have so many fond memories of spending time with her in the Bronx, NY where I was born. Grandma Alice was a private Black woman who ate her oatmeal every morning, answered her yellow wall- mounted house phone when she felt like it, and never let anyone see her without her good wig and dentures. In terms of respect, she was brimming with it for others and her slender figure, statuesque posture, and dark skin added a well- deserved note of always being deserving of respect back from folks. She was the definition of a lady to me. My mother always used phrases like, “be ladylike” with me growing up and I can only imagine that she got it from Grandma Alice.

The politics of respectability is still important to the women in my family. I was born in 1991 when respectability politics— contrary to popular belief that young folks are careless— is in fact alive and very well. I can still distinctly remember walking with my Grandma Alice to her polling place, which was an elementary school just a few blocks away from her project apartment on Webster Avenue where she raised four children, buried a husband, and where she now babysat her grandchildren. On one particular occasion in memory, I recall parting my lips on the walk to the school to ask Grandma Alice whom she was voting for. With her gray-colored, honest West Indian eyes she looked over the bridge of her nose and told me it was not my business in many words, or none because her eyes usually spoke for themselves. I was taught not to pry by many women in my family but my four and a half-year-old self was quite inquisitive.

When we arrived at the polling place there were curtains for privacy over what I imagine weren’t even computers yet, maybe just papers with pencils? My Grandma and I waited in a short line and were ushered into a curtain of our own. Well, I thought it was ours. Ms. Creque as most of the neighborhood called her peeped my little nose and eyes trying to peer over her ballot and she quickly grabbed my hand and placed me just outside of the curtain for a short time. When she finished she scooped me up and we were on our way. On the way home, she said, “You don’t discuss who you’re voting for.” To this day conversations about politics make me a bit uncomfortable.

My Grandma Alice had unknowingly set the tone for me, and my relationship to politics for years to come. I can’t begin to imagine how or where my Grandma may have arrived at the decision not to discuss it. After some years now I’ve seen how conversations about politics can overheat so to speak and that was something my Grandma just didn’t do— overheat that is.

However, she did vote and taught me a valuable lesson in doing so. She wasn’t easily swayed is the message I got from her not leaving who she voted for to be up for discussion and those are lessons I took with me on November 3, 2020 to my polling place.

Much like my much younger and inquisitive mind at the polling place with my Grandma, I’ll be holding friends accountable by peeking over their shoulders figuratively on social media to make sure our values are aligned.

Today, I’ll drive my mother and my daughters, and frame the importance of voting— by voting myself. Just like my Grandma before me.