Oprah, Cousin Pookie, and the Long Tradition of Shaming Black Voters

Public figures have often urged black citizens to the polls by invoking ancestral trauma, but these exhortations seem to overlook the persistence of voter suppression.

At a campaign event for the Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, Oprah encourages black citizens to vote. (Christopher Aluka Berry / Reuters)

It’s hard not to listen to Oprah. The media magnate has spent decades guiding rapt audiences toward one broad, secular nirvana. Live your best life, her show and her post-television mantra became. In whispers and in proclamations, the mogul has championed the joys and comforts of mindfulness-driven behavior.

But at a campaign event last week for Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate in Georgia’s gubernatorial race that may now culminate in a runoff, Winfrey raised the stakes for a particular subset of her listeners. She shared a story she’s told before on her show, that of the late Otis Moss Sr., a sharecropper who walked 18 miles to vote in the 1946 election—the first in which black Americans had been widely permitted to vote. Moss was told he arrived too late to cast his ballot at his final destination, and he died before he would have another chance.

Oprah was decisive in her connection of Moss’s story to this year’s election. Winfrey noted that she had come out for Abrams—but also to honor the ghosts whose presence hovered above the two black women. “I’m here today because of the men and because of the women who were lynched, who were humiliated, who were discriminated against, who were suppressed, who were repressed and oppressed for the right—for the equality at the polls,” Winfrey said at the Abrams event in Marietta. “And I want you to know that their blood has seeped into my DNA, and I refuse to let their sacrifices be in vain.”

“For anybody here who has an ancestor who didn’t have the right to vote and you are choosing not to vote wherever you are in this state, in this country, you are dishonoring your family,” she continued later. “You are disrespecting and disregarding their legacy, their suffering, and their dreams when you don’t vote.”

Thinking back on Winfrey’s words a week later, as news of voter suppression in Tuesday’s election continues to roll in, it’s once again difficult to ignore the cruel irony of telling black citizens their vote is both historically mandated and an uncomplicated matter of individual choice. After all, Oprah’s exhortation to black voters—especially black American voters—is hardly the first of its kind. Politicians and celebrities have long pressured black voters to turn out at the polls specifically by insisting it’s what our ancestors, or sometimes “the ancestors,” fought for. This year’s election cycle was no different.“Our ancestors fought for our rights to vote,” the rapper E-40 tweeted on Tuesday, along with a photo of himself brandishing an I Voted sticker.

The actress Amirah Vann phrased it far more damningly: “When we don’t vote, we voluntarily silence both ourselves and our ancestors,” she told Marie Claire, “simultaneously suffocating our future and their sacrificial shouts of ‘justice for all’ with the very same pillow upon which they finally laid their heads to rest, dreaming of freedom.” In Florida, the artist Shaun Leonardo crafted a piece to be erected as a billboard in the state’s capital city. A grayscale rendering of the slain black teen Trayvon Martin, the work bears a stomach-churning message: “Trayvon Martin ... would have been 23 years old ... could have voted.”

Even Beyoncé nodded to the importance of honoring one’s forerunners by voting: “I’m feeling grateful for everyone before me who fought so hard to give us all the right to have a voice,” she captioned one of her 11th-hour Instagram posts in support of Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic candidate for Senate who was ultimately defeated by the Republican incumbent Ted Cruz despite drumming up impressive support among young voters, people of color, and women in the historically conservative-leaning state. The post wasn’t explicitly directed at her black fans, but the subtext was clear. “We can’t voice our frustrations and complain about what’s wrong without voting and exercising our power to make it right,” she added.

Beyoncé’s post, like Winfrey’s speech, neatly summarizes the condescending nature of most messaging to black voters. Rather than incentivizing people by naming tangible benefits of voting, celebrities and pundits alike all too often tap into a seemingly bottomless fountain of racial shame. They question black voters’ sense of community and self-respect. They evoke painful imagery: slavery, lynchings, police violence. After such reminders to black citizens, public figures often end with some version of the same platitude-cum-rallying-cry: We’re all equal at the polls. Now we share the same right, and you owe it to your forerunners to exercise it. It’s a simple, linear trajectory: up from slavery and out into the polls. Citizenship, realized.

But the long legacy of white-supremacist violence against black people in America does not begin or end at the polls. The idea that legions of black people offered their lives as a sacrifice just so that future generations could vote on one day is reductive. Black people in America and beyond have faced cruel, unrelenting terrors in pursuit of justice and humanity. Reducing their efforts—sloganizing their deaths—robs them of the full breadth of their motivations; it fashions their lives into dispensable tokens of social progress. Zeroing in on voting also glosses over the coordinated campaigns black people have historically organized to ensure any number of social needs, among them housing rights, education, and protection from violence. It dilutes centuries of black social movements into one easily quantifiable moment.

Of course, Winfrey and others who invoke the specter of ancestral trauma are correct in their assessment of the historical barriers to black Americans’ enfranchisement. The Fifteenth Amendment, which granted black men the right to vote, was ratified in February 1870, five years after the end of the Civil War and seven years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. But the Reconstruction era brought with it a strategic dissolution of black enfranchisement by white Americans, a backlash that was nearly cemented by the end of the 1880s, especially in the South. Black American voters were not widely unencumbered until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, which required federal preclearance of any election changes made at the state or local level—including literacy tests, photo-ID laws, and redistricting. It ushered in an era of democratic shifts.

But in 2013, the Supreme Court decided this preclearance formula was unconstitutional. In the five years since it was struck down, protections against both major policy changes and “minor barriers” such as “polling-place changes, long lines at the polls, and small bureaucratic hurdles,” as my colleague Vann R. Newkirk II wrote recently, have eroded in the exact jurisdictions where visiting celebrity figures like Oprah and Obama have taken to chiding black voters for their perceived disinterest.

Ahead of the 2018 midterms, black civic engagement had indeed dipped—perhaps the result of post-Trump cynicism, yes, but also of targeted and renewed disenfranchisement. This is a far less inspiring talking point than Vote because it’s the truest measure of your power or even Vote or die! It is not a feel-good story. Far-reaching voter suppression does not function as evidence of the idea that black people—or immigrants or LGBTQ people or any other marginalized group—can shift the trajectory of the country with the same vote everyone else has. It threatens the very foundation of liberal views in America—the idea that the country is always progressing.

Still, “while voters of all races were about equally likely to report that they would vote in the 2018 election, black voters were significantly more likely than others to report that their friends intended to vote, indicating a greater community interest in the midterm elections,” a survey from The Atlantic and the Public Religion Research Institute found earlier this year. In Georgia, black voter turnout had already risen 43 percent, compared with 2010, during the primaries. But even before the midterm election itself, this increased interest in civic participation was being curtailed by efforts to derail black (and Latino) voting.

One poll, conducted in June, found that:

9 percent of black respondents and 9 percent of Hispanic respondents indicated that, in the last election, they (or someone in their household) were told that they lacked the proper identification to vote. Just 3 percent of whites said the same. Ten percent of black respondents and 11 percent of Hispanic respondents reported that they were incorrectly told that they weren’t listed on voter rolls, as opposed to 5 percent of white respondents.

These are not people intent on disrespecting their ancestors, or sitting at home on their couches like former President Barack Obama’s favorite criticism receptacle, the proverbial “Cousin Pookie” who would rather watch football. They are people whose bureaucratic infrastructures continue to fail them—people who do not have the same vote as everyone else.

Across the country, black voters saw their voting rights again threatened on Tuesday—especially in states and districts most influential in hotly contested races such as Abrams’s, as well as those of the Democratic candidates Beto O’Rourke in Texas and Andrew Gillum in Florida. In Georgia, where Winfrey made her speech, high numbers of black voters turned out—only to find that the state had not prepared adequate resources for their districts. These failures are not accidental. As the Emory University professor Carol Anderson noted:

Under [Brian] Kemp, Georgia purged more than 1.5 million voters from the rolls, eliminating 10.6 percent of voters from the state’s registered electorate from 2016 to 2018 alone. The state shut down 214 polling places, the bulk of them in minority and poor neighborhoods. From 2013 to 2016 it blocked the registration of nearly 35,000 Georgians, including newly naturalized citizens. Georgia accomplished this feat of disfranchisement based on a screening process called “exact match,” meaning the state accepted new registrations only if they matched the information in state databases precisely, including hyphens in names, accents, and even typos.

The Abrams race will likely not be formally over any time soon. The host of voting inconsistencies and clear attempts at suppression may never be addressed to Abrams’s—or black voters’—satisfaction. The irregularities and missteps at the polls were intentional blocks, a kind of contemporary racial intimidation that functions to push black people out of putatively sanctioned civic engagement.

But black voters showed up. Whether they did it for their ancestors or for themselves, those voters knew the importance of their actions—and the urgency of this political climate. Black people aren’t the ones who need to be reminded of the racist violence that forms the foundation—and perhaps also the future—of the country.