“The history of black people in America is full of paradox,” Darryl Pinckney writes in Blackballed: The Black Vote and US Democracy (New York Review Books; $16.95). The controversy surrounding the right to vote, which Pinckney calls “a much-debated and set-upon instrument,” is one of those central paradoxes.
At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin argued for universal suffrage for all males, but most of his colleagues, despite their lofty rhetoric, disagreed. That “all men are created equal” did not mean that all men, or women, could be entrusted with the vote. “The vote was not a right but a franchise that could be extended or withdrawn depending on social conditions,” Pinckney writes. That contradiction has become particularly evident in the Obama years, when the election of the first black president has been followed not only by the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act but also by the most significant political effort since the end of Reconstruction to restrict such rights.
Pinckney, a longtime contributor to The New York Review of Books, is best known as a novelist and playwright. He owes his interest in voting rights to his parents, particularly his father, who grew up in the Jim Crow South. “My father often lectured me on black history,” Pinckney writes. “He once told me that had he not left Georgia he would have ended up dead.” Pinckney refers obliquely to his father’s background but credits him as a major intellectual influence. In the Pinckney household, as with so many families who endured segregation, the hard-won franchise was not to be taken lightly. Of David Foster Wallace’s adage “There is no such thing as not voting,” Pinckney says it is “the faith I grew up in.”
His slim book, based on a lecture delivered at the New York Public Library in 2012, offers a brisk history of black voting rights. It covers a lot of ground, surveying the trajectory of the civil-rights movement, musing on the influence of social media in the 2012 election, and describing the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision overturning a key section of the Voting Rights Act. (The second part of the book, a critical review of Touré’s Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? What It Means to Be Black Now, which appeared in The New York Review of Books, doesn’t mesh with the earlier narrative.)
The most compelling parts of the book feature Pinckney’s spirited parents, and one wishes the author had written more about them. His mother supported Barack Obama for president in 2008, but his father backed Hillary Clinton, reading all of Bill’s 969-page autobiography and Hillary’s 567-page memoir to his wife while she recovered from cataract surgery (a form of torture in and of itself). “They did not get around to Dreams From My Father,” Pinckney notes dryly.