Standing Up for Pookie: How our Democracy Fails the People Who Need Us Most

by Candace Simpson

It has been about a week since Election Day. Many of us left-leaning folk woke up Wednesday morning groggy, upset that our country had turned Red. Not too soon after this news did political pundits and armchair-philosophers pontificate the reasons why people “voted against their interest”. And while there were absolutely people who voted against their interest for Republican representation, there were also people who chose not to vote.

These are not the “I-Don’t-Need-Your-Government-I-Throw-It-On-the-Ground” people. In fact, we rarely question the choice to abstain from voting when it is well-articulated and uses sophisticated phrases like “corrupt systems exist because we give them power”. Even our hero W. E. B. DuBois abstained from voting. When we hear language like that, we usually grant those individuals the grace to abstain because “at least they’ve made an informed decision”.

I’m talking about the “Pookie” President Obama referred to. The people we’ve deemed “politically ignorant”. These are the people we were talking about in our Facebook statuses when we posted “I voted, did you?”. We never asked them if they needed us to watch their kids while they did so and we didn’t offer a ride. We also know that especially in Black communities there are real obstacles to voting on a Tuesday. Many places of work don’t get the day off. If you happen to have certain titles, like housekeeper or nanny, you probably won’t have that flexibility anyway.

But if you stand in a circle of respectable Black folks long enough near Election Day, you’ll probably hear the topic of voting associated with words like “duty” and “responsibility”. Someone, after all, died for our right to vote. As a Black woman, it is a historical fact that people have protested, fought, organized, and died for me to vote. But something can be a fact without being true.

We might do well to think of how we made these Pookies. Prayer breakfasts, panel discussions, and otherwise respectable programs aren’t really engaging or welcoming, yet we do these things in the name of politics. If we were being honest with ourselves, we might notice that we don’t really want everyone to be engaged. Isn’t that the story of Claudette Colvin?

I participate in formal political activities, but I’m not convinced they are even the start of our political engagement. When I think of the ways in which Ferguson activists have taken back their city, I am reminded that WE are democracy. I come from people who resist. As Black women, we make a way out of no way. We mentor, teach, read, write, inspire, babysit, cook for the Girl Scouts meeting, and support the new businesses of our friends and family. These are political activities. They just aren’t formalized. I value this participation more than voting, because anyone can do it. The undocumented, the young, the ones who have no way to the polls participate in this way. This is democracy.

When I think about what participation really looks like, I think about my second graders. During last year’s snow storms, the New York City Chancellor said schools should remain open so children could have a free lunch. With below freezing temperatures and dangerous road conditions, my students were not happy. At morning meeting, I sat in a circle of about 14 students (because the other 10 couldn’t make it) and we talked about how we felt. At one point, a student suggested “maybe we should write a letter to the Chancellor. Tell her why we don’t like this.” Their reasons ranged from “my sneakers keep getting wet and my dad doesn’t have money for real boots” to “I need school because my friends are all here”. We sent the letters to the office, and eventually she wrote us back. They were so proud to be heard in this way. It began a relationship. I value that more than the sticker we posed with on Instagram.

When we try to get the Pookies in our circles to vote, we should probably be doing more listening than anything else. Pookie doesn’t need to be shamed into a Civil Rights History lesson, and he certainly doesn’t need it from us. After all, we’re the same people who complain about jury duty and can’t name our local representatives. When we continue to use condescending rhetoric in our language about civic responsibility, we alienate the people we say we want to reach. We cannot use Pookie as a scapegoat.

What lessons might be learned if we took the non-voters seriously? If we listened before we shamed them? We might get a better understanding of how to make democracy a real thing if we listened to those who felt so distant from participation. Sometimes the most un-Christian people are sitting in church every Sunday, and sometimes the most politically uninformed voter posed in an “I Voted” selfie. And most times, the “outsider” has a better grip on our world than we do. We’ve got to grow up from the School House Rocks politics.

Photo Credit: Deposit Photos

Candace Simpson is a Seminary student in New York. As a Brooklyn native, she knows where to find all the good pizza. You can follow her tweets here @CandyCornball.

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