DC Emancipation Day, Census 2020, and Voting
With DC Emancipation Day on April 16, it seems prudent to be thinking about D.C.’s place in this country and the history it has seen, as well as all the people who have shaped it into the city it is today -- and what steps can be taken even now from home to contribute to its future.
There is a unique and obvious focus on justice that is molded into the District’s structural integrity, but there is also the humanity of the people who experienced and forged that focus over time. Even today, everyone currently residing in the District has a role to play in pushing this line of activism and self-determination forward, particularly as the present determines what our city is going to look like in the future.
In this unique moment, as many of us take care of our fellow District residents by staying home, we can take part in shaping D.C.'s future further by completing the 2020 household census and getting an absentee ballot for June's D.C. Primary election. Both of these actions are part of taking care of D.C. so that its resources can take care of us.
As you participate from home, please also check out these books that look at where DC has been and provide a context and grounding look at where it might be headed. It feels like everything has changed so fast, but these books take a long lens and provide a little stability, a little continuity and a hope that we can move forward with not just the worries of the present, but also the lessons of the past. (All are available as library ebooks and linked to in that format.)
Black History of the White House by Clarence Lusane
Professor Clarence Lusane, who is also an activist and journalist, wrote this book as a way to present the untold history, racial politics, and shifting significance of the White House as experienced by African Americans. He does this with an insightful and rigorous look at everything from the generations of enslaved people who helped to build it (or were forced to work there) up to the first black First Family: The Obamas. Throughout, Lusane helps readers see the way this architectural piece of iconography synonymous with Washington, D.C. plays into the social fabric sewn by the struggles of black Americans seeking full citizenship and justice.
Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital by Chris Myers Asch and George Derek
This book dives deep into the tense juxtaposition between America’s expansive democratic promises and its enduring racial disparities. Beyond what Washington offers the rest of the country, D.C. has its own local culture and this book touches both on national ideals as well as District realities. It focuses particularly on race, but is ever insistent on putting forth the truth that D.C. residents, despite paying full taxes, lack full political rights. The book explores the past to the near present (2017) covering concepts like slavery, segregation, civil rights, the drug war, and gentrification while personalizing these topics with unforgettable characters and stories of hope and resilience.
Give us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America by Ari Berman
Another book that focuses on an issue central to Washington, D.C. during the week of Emancipation Day is this title. Berman works through the legacy of the Voting Rights Act, including the aspects of it that were struck down in 2013 when the broadness of the provisions, though not the provisions themselves, were declared unconstitutional, as a result of the Shelby County v. Holder case. Written two years after that case was decided, this book is a narrative history that discusses the conflict arising over the attempts at either enfranchisement or disenfranchisement, both of which are pursued by different interest groups. Importantly, this ties into D.C. Emancipation because it is intricately connected to the idea that all people have an equal role to play in our democracy and ought to have it made as easy as possible to participate. It is an illuminating way to explore the history of such an enduringly essential issue.
The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote by Elaine Weiss
Similarly, this title is heavily focused on the right to access the vote as an essential democratic institution. In this case, rather than a focus on racial disenfranchisement, its focus is on the sex of voters. Inspired by the actions taken by women who advocated on their own behalf, this book focuses on Tennessee, the last state needed to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment of the Constitution, in 1920. Not sensationalist but entertainingly told, this book draws on all the inherent drama of the ratification: from dirty tricks, bigotry, and Jack Daniel’s to the bible and big name players like Frederick Douglas and Eleanor Roosevelt. It’s the exact opposite of a dry and boring read, and shows how much hope there is in asserting rights for everyone.
Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C. by Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood
Finally, to get in the headspace of D.C. Emancipation Day, this is a book that explores the irony and disparity between what Washington, D.C. aims to symbolize and the class, power, and racial conflicts for which it has frequently played host. The city’s mayoral transformations, congressional hearings, the establishment of home rule and neighborhood changes are all explored in depth. For those of us living in D.C. (or just interested in the specifics of its history) this book takes the critical eye of two accomplished journalists and allows readers the opportunity to get close to the nuances that hold space between perception and reality as it relates to the city.