"Exhibiting You" - Story

Helping Mattie Vote in Overtown

By: Pamela Mays McDonald
Submitted: 11/12/2008

OVERTOWN DISTRICT, MIAMI, FLORIDA, October 24, 2008 -- I spent a hot Florida day in the low-income, "Overtown" section of Miami.

Following police abuse-of-power incidents, Overtown (formerly known as "Colored Town") was the site of back-to-back riots in 1982 and 1989, in which one person was killed, hundreds were shot, injured or arrested, and 27 buildings were burned to the ground. Today, the district has an 83 percent concentration of African American residents (vs. 25 percent citywide), and 54 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, with a 23 percent unemployment rate. This area is known for a high crime rate, redevelopment failure, and its invisibility to the political establishment.

I had been warned by an older male family friend not to go "running around" in Overtown, as he considered it a dangerous area where outsiders are unwelcome and easily recognized.

But this is a place where many had been disenfranchised in the 2000 and 2004 elections, and I was determined to enable these people to exercise their constitutional rights of citizenship. I was a child of the Civil Rights Movement. A voice in my mind called out "Yes we can!" and "We shall overcome!" People had died to ensure the rights of people from "Colored Towns" to vote; I would play my role in this legacy of political activism, unfazed by rumors of crime or scary stories from condescending patriarchs.

The Barbecue Rally

Early in the afternoon, my campaign friend and I attended a get-out-the-vote rally at the neighborhood's Youth Center, where union members grilled burgers and hot dogs for the kids and the neighbors. A DJ with a giant outdoor stereo setup played a sampling of music from African American, Trinidadian, Haitian and Cuban traditions. It was a mixed bag; the infectious rhythms jumped from one beat to another. From time to time, the DJ would pick up the mike and begin a rhythmic rap: "Ya got to vote, y'all! It's votin' time, everybody!"

People--men, women and children, mainly single mothers with children, or grandmothers with children--went crazy over the Obama buttons, Obama bumper stickers, temporary tattoos--anything with the candidate's likeness. I had packed a supply of campaign materials in the car and filled my pockets, which helped me to make new friends as I walked among the crowd to introduce myself and initiate conversations about the State's early voting process.

There was a certain subdued, serious resignation among the attendees, as though they'd seen this all before (had other politicians given them barbecue? had they made promises to these people that had never been kept?). Their eyes appeared veiled with a kind of dull sadness (was this a sad place? or was enthusiasm an unpopular expression here?). But my broad smile, my out-of-state visage and all the campaign paraphernalia I produced brought smiles to their faces, one person at a time.

One spectacularly beautiful woman, dressed all in black despite the heat, stood out in the crowd. It was Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning, Oscar-nominated, Hollywood actress Alfre Woodard, attending the event with a cameraman in tow. Standing under a tree, she spoke at length into the camera, showing great passion as she answered questions from an interviewer about the importance of political action. Afterward, she stood alone, easily approachable and un-mobbed by fans.

Despite the music, the excitement of the children, the grilled food and the celebrity "photo op", it was unclear to me whether or not the event had actually encouraged anyone to vote. But as my car pulled out of the parking lot, women and their children waved to me, grateful for the campaign "swag" I had been able to distribute. Some cars in the lot already sported their new bumper stickers and many people had affixed buttons to their clothing.

Meeting Mattie

Leaving the Overtown Youth Center event, I visited the tiny, overstuffed, fastidiously ornamented, yet proudly clean apartment of a local woman named Mattie. This woman had been calling the Obama field office several times a day, begging someone to come help her complete and mail her absentee ballot.

Mattie "hadn't been feeling well lately" and had recently been hospitalized, so we went to her home, just to collect her one vote. I had no idea what to expect, but I had been duly informed by a volunteer dispatcher at the campaign office that we were going into to a "ghetto" area.

Driving up to Mattie's block in Overtown, in the shadow of Miami's bustling, downtown, high-rise, high-rent district, I passed block after block of empty and abandoned lots and under-the-freeway dominoes games, played by grown men with nothing better to do and nowhere better to go.

Eventually, I encountered one of the neighborhood’s only remaining businesses, a small corner liquor store, painted a bright emerald green, the only structure remaining on that side of the street. On the corner, there were various congregations of young and old men and women.

Heavily made-up young women wearing skimpy clothing pleaded with a man leaning against the building (were these prostitutes? drug dealers?). Something appeared into his hand; the young women walked away again. Out front, a thoroughly disheveled, dangerously thin woman wobbled on her feet, as two carefully-dressed preteen girls tried to talk with her (how did these girls know her? was she their mother? their aunt?).

I parked my car down the block. Across the street, inside the rusty gates and unkempt courtyard of Mattie’s apartment building, several groups of young men wearing XXL t-shirts and twisted, dreaded and braided hairstyles, played cards in the courtyard and joked loudly on the balconies of the upper floors. Without a doubt, this was clearly a neighborhood full of grown men playing games.

We mounted the stairs to Mattie's second floor apartment. After a few knocks, a sad-faced woman of indeterminate age opened the door wearing a faded, flowered housedress and a red satin hair cap. Her eyes, at first guarded, brightened as she looked at me and my friend, standing there in her doorway, dressed in Obama t-shirts and blue jeans. To paraphrase a refrain from the campaign, we were the ones she had been waiting for.

She bade us to enter the dark apartment; it took a few moments for my eyes to adjust. She graciously cleared space for me to sit beside her on the plastic-covered sofa. This piece of furniture easily took up half the space in a tiny front room filled with plastic flowers, ceramic figurines, a nonworking television and an electric radio which blared news and talk from a shelf in the corner.

It soon became clear why she needed help with her ballot; her reading skills were limited or nonexistent (could she see well enough to read? had she learned to read in school?) and she had trouble holding a pen (was it due to her illness?). So my friend and I read aloud the various measures and propositions on the ballot, none of which she had yet considered.

Her only preoccupation, the only thing she wanted to ensure, was that we marked her ballot to vote for the person she proudly called, "my boy"; she wanted to vote for Senator Barack Obama as President of the United States of America.

"Do you think he's going to win?" she asked me in all earnestness, looking deep into my eyes as though she trusted me to know the answer. I promised I would pray for him, but only God could know the outcome of this election (would he be able to win? would the election be stolen from him? would my prayers for his success and his safety be heard?).

Eventually, her ballot was completely filled out. Then we double-checked it. Our task completed, we placed the ballot in its envelope and showed Mattie how to sign her name over the seal on the back. We promised to deliver her ballot directly to the post office. She smiled broadly and seemed to become more animated.

She asked us to wait a few moments while she telephoned another woman, her friend in the apartment complex, another woman who lived alone, another house-bound prisoner of this neighborhood. This other woman needed help, too. Could we pick up her ballot, too? Finally, unable to reach the woman by phone, she resigned herself to the realization that the voting was over, so the visit was over. We gently reminded her that it was getting late and we had many more votes to "get out".

She couldn't stop hugging me, repeatedly saying "God bless you! Thank you! God bless you!" as we struggled to make our exit. She smelled good, like soap and lotion. Then we were out the door, thrust into the bright tropical sunshine, even now beginning to fade into sunset. The radio was still audible from inside the apartment.

We reversed course, heading down the stairs, out the rusty gate to the car, walking the gauntlet of young men with nothing better to do than to play games, all day (what did they do at night? what must it be like to live here, day and night, year after year? exactly what kind of games were played here after dark?). One of the young men approached me. "Sister, do you have five dollars you can spare?"

I laughed and told him, honestly, "Are you kidding? I wish I did!" But later in the car, I said to myself and to my friend, "Five dollars? What is he---crazy?" (was he crazy? was I crazy for laughing at him and refusing his request?)

It was only much later, driving on the freeway across town, that we realized we had not instructed Mattie to write the date on the outside of the envelope, per the written instructions. Would anyone notice? Would they pay attention to the enclosed ballot and count her vote along with the others? Would they just throw away the envelope? Or was it possible that the State of Florida would invalidate her ballot just because of a missing date on the outside of the envelope? Could they do that? No. Surely her vote would still count...(or would it?) We grew quiet in the car.

Should we go back to collect the date on the envelope? I could imagine Mattie then, still sitting on the plastic-covered couch in her dark apartment, smiling at the memory of her nice visitors, listening to the radio for news about "her boy", turning the volume louder to drown out the commotion made by all the games being played on the block beyond her door.

Returning to Mattie's apartment was completely out of the question now; the sun had begun to set and the sky was quickly going dark. Mattie had voted; we would have to pray for the right outcome in Overtown.

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