Black Family Reunions, a Wellspring of Political Wisdom, Evaporate in 2020

Bettie Griggs, a retiree in Los Angeles, was 12 years old and living in Louisiana when her mother received her first voter registration card in the mail. It was 1965.

“I can still recall the joy that she had,” Ms. Griggs said. “I can recall seeing that the card was actually stamped ‘illiterate’ and thinking, ‘Oh my God, they stamped her card illiterate.’”

The long history of voter disenfranchisement in the United States is a central theme that guides Ms. Griggs’s family reunions, held every other year in Shreveport, La.

That is because in the African-American family tradition, reunions frequently act as opportunities for political organizing, with older generations emphasizing to younger family members the importance of registering to vote. Save the church, Black families have often lacked designated spaces — public, and wholly their own — where they can be immersed in community. Much like services on Sundays, reunions are rituals that give families an occasion to come together and share political wisdom and oral histories.

But many of these gatherings have been upended this year, even as an enormously consequential election unfolds and as large numbers of Americans have been shaken awake to confront a fuller picture of bigotry in their country. At a time when family reunions would have been a timely way to honor diaspora-wide histories of surviving racialized violence, the coronavirus, a disease that disproportionately affects Black Americans, has prevented many of them from happening.

This could have subtle but meaningful political implications, as Black Americans’ voting rights are increasingly under attack. An important channel for information on how to vote — historically harder to find in marginalized communities, and sometimes intentionally obscured from them — has been cut off.

“In key ways, the intersection of politics and the traditional Black family reunion kind of go hand in hand,” said Benson Cooke, a professor of counseling and psychology at the University of the District of Columbia and a former national president of the Association of Black Psychologists. “We had to overcome what had been broken in us. In other words, we had to find the type of space for the old to share cultural memories that aid in the cultural repair for our youth, enhancing a knowledge and awareness of who we are.”

In Ms. Griggs’s family, that has translated into an effort she leads called the Family Voting History Project. Informed by the sacrifices that previous generations of the family made to be able to exercise the right to vote, Ms. Griggs uses the family’s newsletter to record family history and mark progress in real time. This includes published interviews conducted between members of the family history team and relatives of all ages, who share their voting experiences and political views.

Darrell Sheppard, an 18-year-old member of the family — which calls itself the Gillyard-Johnson-Mahoney family — credited his grandmother with helping him prepare to vote in his first presidential election this November.

“She made sure that I’d be voting this year in the first place, because she was advocating for me to go get a voter registration card around 17,” said Mr. Sheppard, who lives in St. Louis. He acknowledged that he and cousins around his age don’t discuss politics much, and said he appreciated that older members of his family had opened up the conversation.

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“You’re more inclined to take their opinions,” he said, instead of relying on social media to decide which candidate to vote for.

Dr. Cooke said the historical and contemporary importance of Black family reunions lay in the fact that they model the African proverb: It takes a village to raise a child.

During the Great Migration at the start of the 20th century, many Black Americans fled the racial discrimination and poor economic conditions of the rural South, settling in the North and the West, in urban centers of industry like Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles.

While these migratory patterns signaled new horizons for Black economic mobility and safety, they also pulled families apart. As the “village” dispersed across the country, family reunions became an important way to remain connected — to one another, and to the ancestral home base.

For Black voters especially, using reunions as a vehicle to get more family members registered is the result of having to “be creative,” Dr. Cooke said.

This year, the pandemic has demanded even more ingenuity, prompting family leaders to figure out how to gather virtually while approximating the warmth and power of having several generations in one place.

“In many ways, that’s brought in the younger generation to kind of give back using the instruments of technology,” Dr. Cooke said, adding that Zoom had been a popular platform for reunions.

Still, families across the country are grieving the loss of face-to-face gatherings, which for Black Americans are particularly powerful and loaded.

“We generally always have a call to action, and one year our C.T.A. was actually to encourage our family members to register and to vote,” Ms. Griggs said. “So that’s really a big part of our reunion. Oftentimes as we’re gathered there’s a lot of political talk going on.”

Despite the pandemic, the Gillyard-Johnson-Mahoney family’s voting history project goes on, as it has since the first interview was published in the February 2016 edition of the family’s newsletter.

“A lot of fragments led us to wanting to record our relatives’ thoughts on being registered voters in the state of Louisiana,” Ms. Griggs said. A few years ago, she and others were looking in family archives when they discovered copies of their relatives’ voter registration cards, many of which were obtained after completing a literacy test. Ms. Griggs said the discovery of a reading requirement was part of the idea behind the voting history project, adding, “I think we were just a little bit curious as to why that was, and how they were approached about registering to vote.”

The result of this curiosity is a robust family newsletter, which is sent out every two to three months and includes conversations emphasizing the importance of being politically engaged and registering to vote. The July issue features a conversation with three Gen Z family members; the most recent one, published this month ahead of the election, features an interview with two senior members of the family — cousins — who share memories of their first voting experiences and their voting plans for this year’s presidential race.

Velma Dumas, 70, and Joyce Wilson-Simpson, 68, were 29 and 18 when they voted for the first time in elections in their native Louisiana. But this year, they are voting by mail because of worries about long lines and the virus. Their newsletter interview touches on whether they believe mail balloting leads to fraud (it does not) and advises younger family members on the importance of voting.

“The family history team wanted to record interviews, and we specifically wanted them to be on voting issues,” Ms. Griggs said. “We wanted to really reach some of our elderly family members while we still had an opportunity.”

Even without a physical reunion this year, older family members can encourage their younger counterparts to keep candidate platforms, registration deadlines and voting itself front of mind.

Glenda Gillyard, 65, Ms. Griggs’s younger sister and a member of the family’s history team, said she had taken her daughters to the polls with her from a young age.

“We wanted to instill in these young people that are coming along the importance of going out there and registering and voting,” she said, “because we were realizing there were high numbers of young Black people that were not registered to vote in elections.”

It has paid off: A few years ago, her youngest daughter requested to become a registered voter on her 18th birthday.

“The voting project is very important because we feel that many times young people can get caught up in ‘Oh, my vote won’t count,’” Ms. Gillyard said.

Suzanne Vargus Holloman, a director of the Family Reunion Institute at Temple University, said that civic issues were top of mind in Black and Latino communities — particularly as Election Day nears — after the wave of protests this year over police killings.

“Our expectation was that families would utilize their national reunions as well as regional family events to emphasize voting registration and voting,” Ms. Holloman said. “There is a built-in audience that is receptive to information from family leaders they know and trust.”

An alternative to the traditional family reunion happens every year in Cincinnati: the Black Family Reunion, a celebration started 32 years ago by the activist Dorothy Height. Her legacy of stirring voter awareness is upheld by the event’s executive director, Tracey Artis.

Most years, the Black Family Reunion would be a four-day, in-person event, including a speaker series, a “heritage breakfast,” a parade, a concert and a Sunday morning worship session. This year, that happened virtually instead.

Ms. Artis and volunteers teamed up with the N.A.A.C.P. to facilitate voter registration in the city’s Sawyer Park, but they also gave away hand sanitizer, masks, school supplies and food boxes, and offered free coronavirus testing. Nearly 600 people registered to vote, took a registration form to complete at home or left with a voting pamphlet, Ms. Artis said.

She said that both virus testing and voter registration could save lives.

“When we register people to vote and they go to the polls, and they go out and we see change in America, that can also save lives,” she said. “Because our lives are in jeopardy daily when you have people in office who do not care about us — who don’t understand the plight of Black America.”