I was 4 when my older sister, Tenisha, was shot and killed while walking down a San Francisco street with a friend one Friday night. It was the type of bullets-don’t-have-names misfortune that was, and remains, unshakably common in many black neighborhoods across the country. Reward posters went up, but no one was ever arrested in the case. The reality of Tenisha’s absence has shaped every facet of my family’s being, but has most profoundly defined the way that we do — or don’t — engage with the political process.
Take, for instance, the moment a few years later, when I was walking past the Northern District Police Station in San Francisco’s Fillmore District with my mother one afternoon. I was 7, maybe 8, when I noticed a huge black dog chained to the flatbed of a truck parked outside the station. The dog lunged and growled at me, and I hid behind my mother, terrified. My mother grabbed my hand and marched me into the police station a few steps away, where she demanded to talk with someone on duty. The person she met was white and loomed very large behind his desk. I don’t remember what she said, but I do remember that she was so angry when she said it that spit was flying from her mouth. Even at that age, the subtext of her demand was clear: Prove to me that you can show the slightest bit of interest in my daughter’s life.
The officer’s response was dismissive, at best: “We’ll take care of it.”
To my surprise, my mother wasn’t angry when she left — she seemed affirmed. She also knew that these folks were not to be trusted.
It was around then that we stopped saying the Pledge of Allegiance. It didn’t matter the occasion. Graduations, assemblies. If I dared to stand and place my right hand over my heart, my mother gave me a knowing glare that demanded I have a seat. It was a silent protest — radical now that I look back on it. “It just wasn’t fair,” she said about the pledge when I asked her about it recently. “We never had the same rights as other people.”
Despite her disillusionment with American patriotism, she would still call me before every election to talk through candidates and ballot measures. One time, I asked her if she’s always voted.
“Oh, yes,” she told me.
My mother is one of the roughly 20 million black women who have proved extremely loyal to American democracy. These are the women that Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have courted aggressively in their bid for the White House — and for good reason.