By Tresa L. Chambers
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My eldest sister, Gilda, called me last week to tell me that our nephew, Vernon IV, son of our middle sister, Carmen, was not planning to vote. I wasn’t sure what my role in this moment could be.  Carmen had wanted Gilda to “hear his reasons” for choosing not to go to the polls to vote, potentially, for the first African American president of the United States.

Gilda, who is 16 years my senior, was the most distraught of us three sisters. Listening to her convey her feelings was troubling for many reasons.  This was my sister who had come of age in the Civil Rights Era. I remembered how back in February she called me when she had just voted for Barack Obama in the Virginia primary. Gilda’s throaty voice echoed through tears she had shed. I saved that voicemail for months.

Gilda had become a top corporate executive in her twenties, no doubt partly because of Civil Rights era reforms and laws. She stood as a role model and the pillar of strength for her five siblings, especially the two of us younger sisters, as each of us figured out our lives and stumbled along the way.  Likewise, my sister Carmen had become successful in her career, while providing a nuclear home with Vernon’s dad and access for him to the best public and private schools. What was Vernon’s problem? In all the time that I had spent with Vernon, he had expressed the most interest and excitement about learning about black history — history beyond the learning that he received from his parents who remain active members of a black fraternity and sorority.  What was worse, considering our family’s “dominant discourse,” if you will — that you must have some opinions and feelings about family members’ first-hand knowledge of the oppressions related to our “previous condition of servitude,” as Ralph Ellison once called the bad years for the Negro, from slavery, to Jim Crow (and colonialism) – was my nephew deciding that participation at all was not necessary during the election where a major candidate is of our ethnic group, an African American. Was there something that he had not seen – that we had not shown him, as parents, aunts and uncles, extended family, community, or nation – that shaped his disinterest and disconnection?

Unlike Vernon, I somehow internalized my responsibility for and to black people at an early age – not just to my family, but to the entire community. Unlike my sisters, I had come of age in the post-Civil Rights Era. I grew up in Newport News, Virginia, in the 1970’s, and that caused me to have some experiences unique to the times, though I had no idea that it was because of Civil Rights laws that I was having these experiences.
My three brothers and I were all bussed to school starting in Junior High as part of Virginia’s desegregation efforts. Starting in the early seventies, integration meant that we had to wake up before the sun to stand outside for a bus that would take us on a thirty to forty minute ride to school.  These days, that is common for most of our children; however, my parents had the immediate past to remind them of the dangers to black children who ventured too far from home, although they never showed me they were afraid.

In addition to bussing, I had experiences directly related to being born a bright and black girl in Newport News in 1968.  Because of integration, the political maps were being redrawn, and somehow I got caught in the middle of redistricting. I lived in the same house from birth until college, but changed public schools five times between kindergarten and 12th Grade. I was lucky enough to attend an elementary school that was walking distance from home.  However, because of my advanced reading skills when I entered kindergarten at Magruder Elementary School(thanks to a Grandma who taught us all to read before we started public school), I was allowed to skip first grade.  My principal even wanted me to attend a magnet school, which would have had me being bussed at the age of six, but apparently that option was too far out of my parents comfort zone.

After another year, it was time for redistricting, and I ended up being bussed in the third grade to South Morrison Elementary school, miles away from our house.  There was more redistricting the following year, and I went even farther up the road to Palmer Elementary for fourth and fifth grades, then returned to Magruder, near home, for sixth and seventh grade.  Eighth grade took me back on the bus to Carver Junior High, and then a change in the school system overall, took me to Menchville High School in ninth grade at the age of 13, seventeen miles from home.  In spite of all the social and personal changes I experienced, I believe that by the time I left high school, I received better education in Newport News than most people get anywhere else, even in many colleges and universities.  My teachers were black, white, Jewish, Hispanic, male and female.

As I have come of age, the feeling of connectedness to black people and all those who educated me has evolved me into a woman advocating for the rights that were fought for on my behalf as I moved through my daily life.  No, I haven’t started or led any political or civic organizations.  I am not a joiner in that sense.  I don’t have a blog, although those who have spent a lot of time with me have definitely seen me get on a soap box.  Slowly, yet more deliberately, I am working toward becoming a truly “public citizen” the way that public intellectual, civil rights activist and Algebra Project founder Dr. Bob Moses talked to me about when I had the privilege of giving him a ride home one day. What I do is what many of us in my generation choose to do: show up with our opinions and speak up wherever we go.

I have never agreed with the nomenclature assigned to those of us born in the late sixties and early seventies, Generation X. Perhaps that name would make sense if it were speaking to the revolutionary nature reflected in the politically controversial life of Malcolm X. As black people gained more visibility in all aspects of society and vocalized discontent with the status quo, laws changed and were enforced by the Federal government.  But the “Gen X” name, created by the majority Caucasian cultural media, really reflects a question mark for white people, who were beginning to sense that the walls that surround their white supremacist lives were starting to crack, and they had not prepared themselves or their children for this change and were unsure what to do now.

I call us Gen-I. But the “I” is not for “me,” or “selfishness” of any kind. “I” is for Integration. We are the bridge generation from segregation to the realization of what the Civil Rights Act intended.  I would guess that like me, each of us, black, white and other, has experienced the bumps and bruises – and in some cases, the delirium – that speak to this particular transitional phase in American life. And as we approach November 4, 2008, in anticipation of witnessing the election of the first African American President in the nation’s history, the strength of Generation Integration will finally be realized.

Or will it?  The power of our generation is in the knowledge we have about the struggles for racial equality through first-hand testimony of parents, grandparents, older siblings, other family members and friends. Our power is fortified by our own cultural growing pains as we have integrated schools and jobs where we faced the institutionalized racism that continues to loom from the shadows of every office building where we work.  And our power is ultimately realized through our children, who benefit from the rewards and lessons of the Civil Rights era, who don’t give a second thought to the fact that Michael Jordan is one of the most admired athletes in the world at the same time that Eminem is the number one rapper.

I want to convey to my nephew and others in his generation the sense of Gen-I: the idea that I refuse to be invisible anymore.  The way to do that most powerfully is certainly by walking the talk. But it seems there is a need now for us also to talk the talk: to say what we are doing in order to lend a much needed transparency to how we are living. There are no images of water hoses bullying college students and dogs chasing marchers or those sitting in. The Million People Marches were a decade ago now, and even the recent anti-war demonstrations, which were poorly covered by television media when they occurred, have been rarely revisited on recent broadcasts. The resistance discourse is confined to college campuses or even dismissed by mass media unless some youth with a gun goes tragically ballistic.

So, at work and in day-to-day life, I ask what is meant when anyone says that I or someone else is “not like other black people.”  I express my point of view on topics that have to do with culture AND race.  I defend the points of view of black people and white people if I agree, and express my disagreement when I have an objection.

And I vote.

As we have seen by the long lines at voting booths shown on television during the past week, these kinds of activities and encounters are often uncomfortable. Yet, we must have them anyway.  We are not seeking to make anyone comfortable about us, but our perspective matters.  And so do each of our votes.

Tresa L. Chambers lives and works in New York City.

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