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Legislatively Speaking

Lena Taylor

Carol Moseley-Braun, the first African-American female elected to the United States Senate once said, “Defining myself, as opposed to being defined by others, is one of the most difficult challenges I face.” I was reminded of this quote this past week when a routine act turned the state Capitol into what felt like a southern plantation.

African-American legislators, who comprise the state legislature’s Black Caucus, introduced a resolution to proclaim February 2019 as Black History Month. Serving as an opportunity to acknowledge the contributions of people of African descent, the annual exercise emerged as a defining moment in the demand for Black voices, values, and experiences to be respected.

In the course of including many noteworthy African-American leaders, both local and national, from a variety of industries and across political lines, the Black Caucus selected NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s name for recognition. His inclusion was balked at by White Republican members of the legislature and they sought to rewrite our resolution and define for Black legislators what constituted acceptable Negroes for acknowledgement. No one attempted to talk with members of the Black Caucus to express their concerns. They simply removed Kaepernick’s name and one other honoree and inserted two names of their choosing.

I want to be clear, this is not the norm! If we don’t agree as a legislative body, with someone’s inclusion in a resolution, you simply don’t vote for it. Therefore, the sting of African-Americans’ having their choice of names altered in this way hit hard. It was like Barack Obama needing to show his freedom papers (birth certificate) to Donald Trump; Black people being demonized because they want their lives valued too; segregated lunch counters, or more specifically, being told you are 3/5 of a human being.

And since you are not fully human, you need White Republican men, in the Wisconsin Legislature to think for you and tell you what is best.

The final resolution that made it to the floor for a vote, ultimately had just Kaepernick’s name removed.

The justification offered by Republican Robin Vos was that he wanted to “find people who … bring us together. Not look at people who draw some sort of vitriol from either side.” I guess Vos really doesn’t understand that Rosa sitting, Martin marching, and Colin kneeling are all the same thing…. a form of protest that often-involved vitriol from those that disagreed.

For more than four hours, Democrats of all races, fought for Kaepernick’s inclusion on the Senate floor.

Not one Republican offered a single word to explain their decision against him. When it was over, neither of the only two African-American Senators voted for the resolution. In case no one told them, we are off the plantation. We used our voice, to vote for our values and therefore make it impossible to ignore our experiences. Our contributions and history will not be defined by others.

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