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The Significance of Struggle

James Clingman | 9/19/2012, 12:02 p.m.

One of the main themes in the political conventions was centered on how hard it was for the speakers' families, their parents and grandparents, and how they struggled to make it. Virtually every top speaker reflected on the hard times they went through and how their relatives struggled to put food on the table, how their parents worked two jobs to support their families, and how they lived in a small apartment. They wanted to believe they were "special" because they knew what it was like to struggle. It was kind of funny hearing all the stories and seeing them worn as badges of honor that merited our votes.

Well, I may as well get in on the act with my personal story. My great-grandfather was enslaved in North Carolina. My grandfather somehow got a little piece of land and turned it into the business of farming and keeping chickens and hogs. He dug a well and used an outhouse, which I also had to use when I visited during the summer. My father left home as a teenager, after not finishing high school, came to Cincinnati and started working as a janitor and night watchman.

The first four of his five children, me included, were born at home. We lived in a three-room apartment where the living room was converted to a bedroom every night by a rollaway bed for my older brother and me, and the bathroom was in the hall for others to use as well. Our parents took care of us through my father's job that paid $35 per week. My father was crippled but walked to work every day.

My mother went to work as a domestic in the White suburbs, which ended up being the norm for many Black women back then. Remember the movie, The Help? She later got a job at a hospital making a whopping 50 cents per hour as a cafeteria helper. She worked at that same hospital for 28 years and when she retired around 1980, she was earning $4.50 per hour. By the way, her relatives worked in the mines and lived in the "hollows" of West Virginia, scratching out a living and owing their wages to the company store.

As for me, I worked odd jobs from the age of eight, selling papers, loading trucks, hauling groceries in my wagon, paper routes, working in a grocery store, and washing cars. With a story like this, I should run for office. Struggle? Yes, we as well as millions of other families in this country struggled mightily to make ends meet. So is it the exception or the rule? Is struggle the measure we should use to elect Congresspersons, senators, and presidents?

I really think it's disingenuous for candidates to use struggle as a way to get votes. Sadly, the electorate is swayed by emotional sentiments, meaningless platitudes, and a competition among candidates to determine who had it worse when they were growing up. Most of these guys and gals are multi-millionaires and they are reaching back in their pasts to tug at our heart strings; quite frankly, it's insulting.