Neither the black man nor the white woman in the contest for the 2008 Democratic Party presidential nomination represents my most compelling interests, though I am a black female with decades of experience both in being discounted as a double negative, or claimed twice as an Equal Employment Opportunity "two-fer."
Those who assume my automatic allegiance to Barack (a fine candidate) or to Hillary (an exemplary woman in many ways) are taking the shallow view. In fact, neither race nor gender must necessarily first define me, just because American biases want it that way.
My most visceral instinct is to want John Edwards on the ticket—first or second—because he insists we remember the people whom I do not want to be forgotten.
Mock his accent and question his gravity if you must. Denigrate his hairstyle, even his self-made wealth. He alone dares to voice the cares of the voiceless, to champion people in places that most need representation. Of all the candidates of any party, Edwards speaks loudest and best for equality of class and place, my strongest defining demographics. He may have placed third in South Carolina, but he comes first for my top concerns.
I was born on a subsistence tobacco farm in rural Southside, Va., one of those places where the Great Depression lingered well past World War II. Certainly we must hammer away at racial and gender inequities, but we also need someone like Edwards to make sure we remember the left-behind people, someone to embarrass us for scorning people based on where they happened to be born, by place and class. I want John Edwards in the White House, or at least just a heartbeat and a holler away, because I remember, and suspect he does too, the people this country always leaves behind.
—Poor workers who perished in the 1991 chicken processing plant fire of Hamlet, N.C.
—Flood victims of a minor 1999 hurricane, Floyd, which washed away America's oldest chartered black community in Princeville, Va.—a disaster one scientist called "a very socioeconomic flood that disproportionately impacted the poor."
—The excluded black people living around "Sugar Ditch," Miss., the nation's largest open sewer. A travesty that came to light in the poorest U.S. county, Tunica, in 1994.
—All the Native Americans living and dying on all the reservations from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
Great sport is sometimes made of my roots. I still encounter belittling attitudes from geographic elitists—some even so-called friends—who remind me of the "city cousins" of my childhood, those who grew up in streets so awful their parents couldn't wait until the school year ended to ship them off to the "country" for the summer.
When John Edwards speaks of his daddy in the mills, he evokes my father on a tractor in the hot sun all day after finishing his night shift tending furnaces on a military base. Edwards has a sense, I'm convinced, of how hard it must have been to scrape out a living, even with two jobs. My father worked the land his ex-slave grandfather bought with blacksmith earnings; and his other job was a second-rate civil service opportunity earned through duty in France, Germany, and the Pacific in Uncle Sam's segregated Army.
Not since Lyndon Johnson has any white Southern male reminded us so vividly about my kind of people as consistently as John Edwards. Flawed as he was, Johnson made it possible for people like me to escape their less-populated counties and towns and to learn that our origins are not always inferior to those of Big City and Up North. Acknowledging LBJ's record in no may diminishes, in my mind, the incomparable societal transformation wrought by Martin Luther King and his multitude of followers, counterparts, and predecessors.
I felt privileged, indeed, as a then-temporary Chapel Hill resident, to trot over to help vote John Edwards into the U.S. Senate in his first political race. Sure, I would rather the candidate had been black like me, and female, and with the same mindfulness of poor and overlooked folks. But there was no such candidate then who embodied the fullness of my identity. Just as there is not now. So I'll stack my preferences by my own priorities, thank you.
Alice Bonner teaches journalism at University of Maryland.