When Young People Don’t Vote, It Matters: How the Leaders we Choose Change the Stories we Tell
I can recall the first time my parents saw Barack Obama on TV as if it happened yesterday.
I was in first grade. My parents were talking about school, but I had larger concerns. I was shoving mouthfuls of food into my mouth at the speed of Husain Bolt — obviously to get back to the Nancy Drew novel I had checked out from the school library.
We always kept the TV on in the background, but on mute, so we could hear each other rather than just the TV. I was sitting on the couch, with my dad to the left of me, and my mom to the right of me. My parents usually managed to talk through the entirety of dinner, so when silence fell upon the three of us, I knew something was up.
When the silence persisted, I finally took a breath and looked up from my food to see my parents’ heads turned towards the TV. I looked at the screen, whereupon a black man in a black coat stood, announcing his run for president.
“Is that — is that a black man?” Mom said, finally breaking the silence.
My Dad turned and looked at her with this — this stupefied expression that I couldn’t quite understand. “Raise the volume. Where’s the remote?” he said, with the type of urgency that’s only reserved for emergencies.
I didn’t understand what the big deal was: it was a black man, just like the thousands of other black men I had seen at the grocery store or at school. Obviously, there were more important matters: the Nancy Drew book burning in my backpack.
But years later, I’ve begun to understand the power of his presidency. In fact, a demonstration of that power can be seen by considering my Nancy Drew novel.
Nancy Drew was the story of a white girl. In fact, all the books I read featured white protagonists doing the amazing feats, with black people either nonexistent, in the background, or portrayed in a villainous light. I had to be satisfied with Grover just being a sidekick in Percy Jackson, satisfied with Dr. Seuss books that portrayed black characters only as monkeys. I had to learn to see myself in characters that did not reflect my story.
Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian author, coined this as a “single story”, which she describes as “[showing] a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again…[until] that is what they become.” Black people were defined by this negative story — and President Obama offered a new dimension of the black story. He attended an ivy league school, was not “violent”, was not “angry”.He embodied characteristics that many would consider to be “white”. He proved that the narrative of a black man, a black person, did not have to be negative. This is what I believe the American Franchise to be: the ability for anyone to create their own story and see their own story reflected in the world, no matter their background.
Today we find more than just Nancy Drews being portrayed in media. Now we find black people represented there more than ever before. One of the catalysts of this change — having a black man as President — was made possible through voters, or specifically, young voters.
And while the young vote was just one of many factors that impacted the way the election went in 2016 ???????? , our generation was still were a factor. According to the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study by Sean McElwee, co-Founder of Data for Progress. (Twitter @SeanMcElwee) seven percent of people who supported Obama stayed home during that election. That’s four million people — and these four million people clearly made a difference. According to NPR’s analysis of exit poll data, Democrats won the youth vote by smaller margins in 2016 than they did in 2012. This drop-off was due to two things: more young voters either didn’t vote or opted to vote for a third party. This choice was part of why Pennsylvania went Republican for the first time since 1988.
It is clear that young people have power — that the young vote does indeed count. It’s not just our votes that count: as a demographic, we count. Even if you cannot vote, encourage your friends and peers to vote, and to attend events like Vote that Jawn. While I am currently too young to vote, I am participating in Vote that Jawn to garner more youth votes.
And this is because of the urgency of this time period. The decisions that occur now will not only be reflected in the current presidency, but also in future years.We have a chance to speak out on the issues that matter to us in midterms. It is with pride that I pull not Nancy Drew, but The Hate U Give, a book with a black main character, out of my backpack, with pride that I see more picture books featuring black children.
And it is with pride that I finally answer my mom: yes, it’s a black man. Yes, black people are more than just the stereotypes perpetuated by media. And yes, as young people, we have the power to formulate a future that is inclusive to more stories, a future that does not, as Chimamanda Adichie stated, make “one story become the only story.” A future that embraces the American Franchise.
Hannah Yusuf is a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania with a major in Biological Basis of Behavior and a minor in Creative Writing. She loves to write–and she writes to tell stories that are generally untold. She wants her stories to reflect her heritage and hopes, more than anything, that readers experience a new perspective through her writing.