We justifiably remark about the advancement that Black Marylanders have made in the political arena, most recently with the election of Wes Moore, a Black man, as governor. But like the Sankofa that looks backward as its feet point forward, I draw from the past to guide my enthusiasm and my expectations.
As much as we fret and fuss, denounce and demand, agitate and advocate in the quest to realize the good life — or as the U.S. Constitution says, “the blessings of liberty” — it dawns on me that what was most significant about the election outcomes at the top of the ballot was this: A majority of Maryland voters affirmed that this state is a haven on the Underground Railroad of the 21st century. Here, unlike many parts of the country, access to the ballot is fairly free, and women may still make reproduction decisions without the interference of right-wing vigilantes.
While Marylanders were making history by electing a Black governor, a South Asian immigrant lieutenant governor, a Black attorney general and a woman comptroller, five other states had slavery and involuntary servitude up for a vote on their ballots.
Those who have even a passing knowledge of history probably think of Maryland as one of those places from which Black people like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass fled after liberating themselves from the bonds of slavery. But in the 20th century, Maryland, and especially Baltimore, became a place to which Black people from the deeper South swarmed in search of safety and opportunity.
The welcome mat was not always fully rolled out. Indeed, there was outright hostility in many quarters. But now descendants of some of those 20th century migrants are poised to help model for the nation what population specialists say is its future: a nonwhite majority. The 2020 census showed that only 47% of Marylanders identified themselves as white.
Just imagining the possibility that by 2050 white people will be a minority in the U.S. is driving some of them out of their minds. This insanity is leading their sentries, Republican officeholders at the state level, to devise new — or maybe revive old — ways to hold onto political power. Of course, this nation has a track record of permitting only so many of us Black folks to make it only so far — enough to support the illusion of inclusion but not so many as to challenge the stranglehold of white supremacy.
The familiar pattern emerges: one step forward and then two steps backward, in a centuries-old cha-cha-cha. In the years immediately after the Civil War, Blacks voted and were elected to everything from hometown offices to Congress. Then came nearly 100 years of two steps backward, interrupted only after marching and martyrdom that led to passage of new civil rights laws in the 1960s.
The election of Barack Obama as president in 2008 was countered by the two-steps-backward era in which we still find ourselves. The moment in 2013 that a Supreme Court majority gutted the Voting Rights Act, granting absolution to the old confederate states and telling them to go and sin no more, they promptly did just that — at warp speed. They unveiled updated tools that had made it difficult, if not impossible, for Black people to register and to cast ballots prior to enactment of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
Against this backdrop, the Supreme Court has been asked to define who is Black. The question is whether states must count as “Black” those people who check off boxes on the census that indicate that they are “Black” plus something else.
For much of the history of this nation, having just a little bit of sub-Saharan African heritage meant that you could be denied everything that was the birthright of anyone who was white. Even just 60 years ago in this state, some white people went to great lengths to bar Black Americans from a seat at the table — sometimes quite literally.
That was a time when African diplomats traveling from the United Nations in New York City to their embassies in Washington, D.C., would run smack into Jim Crowism when diners along U.S. Route 40 refused them service. The Kennedy administration quietly persuaded some of the diners to serve the Africans, but the absurdity of even that concession soon became apparent, as one restaurateur told Life magazine: “He looked like just an ordinary run of the mill [N-word] to me. I couldn’t tell he was an ambassador. I said, ‘There’s no table service here.’”
In the summer of 1961, a trio of reporters from the Baltimore Afro-American posed as diplomats from a nonexistent African nation. Their front-page story went viral, as we’d say today. “African, Yes; American, NO” recounted their adventures in being served with various degrees of cordiality along Route 40 at the same time that young Black American protesters were being jailed for demanding the same thing.
What was at issue then is now an issue for the Supreme Court: Who is Black? On one level, I suppose this seems a bit ridiculous. But in this country at this time and with the baggage that we carry, who is “Black” and how that is counted can determine the enforcement of anti-discrimination laws as well as the allocation of resources meant for underserved communities.
Maryland, though a haven of sorts, is nowhere near being the Wakanda of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, there is a kind of “Wakanda Forever” excitement in the air because of that one step forward that propelled Wes Moore to the governorship.
The Sankofa would have us remember other times that we’ve been to these dances. So celebrate, but remain ever vigilant.
E.R. Shipp is a veteran journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist. She is also currently an associate professor at Morgan State University.