My mother was born in the Deep South, in Mississippi in 1940. Her name is Betty Sims. She was born one day after the late congressman John Lewis, and she was one year older than Emmett Till when he was lynched in 1955 in her home state. I think about what that must have felt like for her, learning of his death and seeing how quickly and easily his life and her life — all of our lives — can be taken away based on the color of our skin.
On my mother’s side, I am the descendant of slavery. My mother did not get to go to college. Her father, my grandfather, was a farmer; he could not read or write. My great-grandmother was born at the turn-of-the-century and was very light-skinned. Her mother was the daughter of an enslaved person.
I could go on and on, describing the history of an America that is still part of our lives today. This is a history that is silenced, one that we do not spend enough time talking about, one that we are not given the chance to deal with, to explore our trauma, and how it makes us feel.
My mother’s family moved to Pittsburgh, PA, during the Great Migration in search of better economic opportunities. Men looked for work in steel factories and women looked for work as maids. My mother eventually moved to New York in search of something different for herself.
My mother’s sister, Naomi, also moved to New York. She went to become a model, but the agencies turned her away, saying she was too “dark” and too “African-looking.” But Naomi kept at it, and got a photographer to take pictures of her. One of those shots ended up on the cover of Sunday Times Style; and, in 1969, at the height of the Civil Rights movement, she landed the cover of Life Magazine, with the cover line: “Black Models Take Center Stage.” It was a pivotal moment for the Black Is Beautiful movement.
In my family, I saw first-hand the power of fashion and creativity to create social change, to build movements, to change perceptions and create narratives. People can choose for themselves what they want to see and which story they want to tell.
But what story do Americans want to tell right now? It’s hard to figure out. There is so much that unites us in this country. There are so many reasons for us to work together and try to build a stronger, more connected America and to embrace each other. There is strength in our humanity. And yet there are so many injustices that it can be hard to focus on the positive.
When I think about the things my mother experienced, I remember that it took the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 before she was truly given the right to vote. She was 25. Can you imagine? She was 25, before she was allowed the right to vote everywhere in this country.
Yet, my mother has never complained at all. She has worked hard and held her head high and as soon as we were of voting age she made sure we all went together to go vote. I don’t remember precisely the first time I voted. What I do remember is the energy and the importance my mother has always placed on voting. Asking us if we received whichever notice we are supposed to receive in the mail, asking us if we are ready to vote, making sure we know the dates. We always made an effort and voted together and made plans to be together and walk over to the voting locations whenever it was possible for us to do so.
I am the daughter of a mother from America, who has risen out of a dark history of slavery. I am also the daughter of a father from Africa, who immigrated to this country in the ‘70s and became a naturalized citizen. We earned our right to vote. I understand that people struggled to give me this right and that people are still struggling to keep, gain, or regain the right. I do not take it for granted.
But, I also understand why some people choose not to vote, and I respect their decisions. It is not easy to know what to do, and it’s not easy to operate in this climate where it feels like there are so many obstacles holding us back, and so little potential for real change — especially when change has been so gradual here for hundreds of years.
Still, I choose to celebrate that I have this right. And so I vote for myself, for the future, for all those who have come before me and all those who will come after me.
That’s why I am putting my muscle behind encouraging voter participation. We have a lot at stake. We are at a turning point in American history, and when I look back and think of this moment, I would like to know that I gave it my best try and that I participated. As part of the fashion industry, I know that I am not alone in feeling this way, and one of many who are eager to use our influence to affect change — just like my aunt, Naomi, did so many years ago.
Fashion has the power to move mountains and create movements. Fashion directly impacts the livelihoods of countless people around the world. It’s my dream to see fashion constantly rise up and do its best to support the communities that are the foundation of this industry, yet who are all too often only lurking in the shadows, left to feel invisible. Let’s use our power and our platforms to amplify voices, and uplift and help encourage voter registration and use this gift that we have, one that my ancestors did not have. Let’s make history. Let’s fashion our future in 2020.