Thursday, October 9, 2008

My Gram is Going to Vote

I've discussed my upbringing in eastern Kentucky before. The river town where I grew up lies at a point where Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia meet. What I didn't realize is how important the area is in the elections. I've read that Ohio falls red or blue based on the votes cast in a small number of southeastern and southwestern counties in Ohio. Suddenly, I see the news filled with announcements of candidates traveling to towns with names very familiar to me: Portsmouth, South Point, Ironton. Anyone who lives in a tri-state area understands that the lines between states blur. Points of entry are numerous. Bridges at Huntington, Ashland, Cattletsburg, Russell, and Portsmouth allow easy access across the river and its tributaries. I've been to the movies in Portsmouth; my brother' wedding reception was held in South Point; I've gotten a parking ticket in Ironton. I went to college in Huntington, where my grandparents all lived. In fact, when I was a kid, trips across the river were a regular occurrence because southern Ohio was wet and eastern Kentucky was dry. My father took us over on beer runs regularly. When I got a little older, I made trips across to West Virginia because the legal age was 18 versus 21 in Kentucky and Ohio.

It is amusing to me when this area is referred to as Appalachia. It is the foothills of the Appalachians. It is not the Appalachians proper. It's hill country and I'd be surprised if a single hill in the area gets much above 900 ft. But it is isolated. It may be the 21st century, but some folks are clinging to their 19th century resentment. I've talked about my issues with "my people" before. So I read with interest this article. Read it. I'll wait.

How bad does a ticket or economic prospects have to be to force racists to vote for the smart guy that one? Apparently pretty bad. But the good news is that in the toss up that is racism vs. your own pocketbook, it appears that the pocketbook wins. Which brings me to the point of this post. My grandmother announced to me the other day that she was thinking about voting. She was thinking about voting for Obama. Now, I love my grandmother with all that I am, but this is the same woman who once told me that is was okay to talk to black folks over the back fence, but you wouldn' know...actually invite them into your house. She announced to me as a sign of the changing times that "young kids today just all pile in a car together". She has led an exceedingly segregated life. She goes to an all-white Baptist church. I'm trying to think where my grandmother might actually have had to interact with anyone who wasn't white. Maybe at the grocery store. Maybe at hospital when she volunteered. But by and large, she is isolated from any ideas or cultural influences that are different from her own. My grandmother is 90 years old.

And what is driving her to vote for someone she wouldn't invite into her house? Sarah Palin. Now this isn't a matter of sexism trumping racism. If anything, I have done more to move my grandmother's ideas about what is proper for a woman to do. My grandmother calls ME when she needs help around her house. I painted, papered, and rewired her kitchen. She calls ME when she can't get her answering machine, VCR, or television remote to work. I'm her go-to handy-person.

My grandmother, who had announced months ago that she was sitting out this election (she didn't like McCain but had no intention of voting for Obama), is driven to vote for an African American by what she thinks is the incredible incompetence of McCain's vice presidential selection.

My grandmother represents that sort of ingrained racism that I just took for granted growing up. It isn't in your face or even seething below the surface. If it makes any sense, it isn't purposefully mean. It just is. Its the kind of racism that makes all the black kids sit at the same table in the lunchroom at high school. It's the kind of racism that results in all-white parties. You know, the kind where you'd invite your black friend but then he/she would be the only black person there and then they'd be uncomfortable. In reality, you aren't sure who'd be uncomfortable. It's the kind of racism that, when the unwritten mores are broken, isn't likely to get any comments unless someone drinks too much beer and gets mouthy and the last thing you want to have happen is for someone to actually say something. It isn't a racism you can point your finger at...something more you get a feeling about. In some ways, that kind of racism is worse than the sign on the water fountain. It's insidious, it's accepted without being acknowledged. It just is.

The fact of the matter is, I'm glad my grandmother is being faced with this choice. I'm glad America is. If there hadn't been this grand intersection of economic and political issues right before this election, my grandmother might never have had an opportunity to challenge her own thinking about race. She's 90 years old. Her opportunities to change deeply seated beliefs are running out. I am filled with great optimism to know that even at 90, paradigm shifts are possible.


  1. Cheers -- a touching and insightful post.

    I don't completely agree with this article on Obama & race, but I think it does seem to generally fit what you're saying about your Grams, and it explains why this might not mean much for the end of racism. I don't cotton to all of Beam's points, but I think he's got some good 'uns.

    [Sigh] Back to work. Writing a PhD dissertation feels a lot like insanity (doing the same thing and hoping for different results). Of course, writing in general feels that way to me when i have to bother with drafts and coherence and not just swearing and conjecturing expansively... =]

  2. I'll trade ya one chapter for a few days respite from obsessive compulsive behavior.