Voting Rights Act of 1965 Inspires Poet R.A. Washington
In August 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, enforcing voter rights for racial minorites. More than a half-century later, only 30-percent of registered voters are expected to vote November 7 in Northeast Ohio according to the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections.
In response to this voting indifference, Tri-C Jazz Fest has commissioned Grammy-winner Terence Blanchard to compose a new piece inspired by the voting act. Joining him is local poet R.A. Washington who's charged with writing the work's libretto.
Washington feels privileged to work with Blanchard, who's best known for scoring the films of director Spike Lee.
"[Blanchard's] just really thoughtful, just a thoughtful person. So it makes sense that his art is so moving," Washington said.
As part of the project, Washington has joined community dialogues and had informal discussions about the Voting Rights Act and what it means today.
"I talked to some of my friends who are immigrants, I talked to older and younger black people, talked to white people that I know about just voting in general," Washington said.
When Washington attended one of the community discussions he was surprised by a young African-American man who refuses to vote. The young man told Washington that he had the chance to vote for Barack Obama for President but it wasn't enough for him to cast a ballot.
"He was like, '[Obama] doesn't represent me. He's the elite.' He called [Obama] the 'Talented Tenth."
That surprised Washington, because he hadn't heard young people refer to what W.E.B. De Bois popularized in the early 20th century.
For Washington however, voting has always been a part of his life.
"I was all about it. I tried to do anything that would make me feel like I was a citizen, a person that could be respected. I drank the Kool-Aid on it," Washington said.
Thursday night Washington performs some of what he's written so far at a public event presented by Tri-C Jazz Fest. However instead of Terence Blanchard and his band accompanying him, Washington brings his own band Mourning A BLKstar for a test run of his new material.
The band's name refers to another local poet who was shot and killed last year, Dwayne Pigee.
"He was my best friend and we'd been in collaboration with each other since we were teenagers all the way back to the old Black Poetic Society Days," Washington said.
The poet hopes Thursday night's event and the ongoing Voting Rights Act project with Tri-C Jazz Fest and Terence Blanchard produces more than just great music.
"I hope that people dig it and listen to the music. But I hope that it sparks some dialogue around an active critical populace. We have our mayoral election coming up and I hope that it activates Clevelanders and that Clevelanders can see and start to recognize just how entrenched Cleveland history is with a lot of these larger historic moments in the country," Washington said.