“Grandfathering” is a much-cherished legal concept, and a good one at that. The notion is that an individual’s longstanding right or privilege may be allowed to continue notwithstanding new rules which apply to everyone else. Thus if a new by-law requires all new houses to be built of brick, it will likely grandfather all the existing wooden houses.
But the origins of the expression were much more sinister and had to do with voter suppression. After the American Civil War and the subsequent failure of Reconstruction, many of the former Confederate states introduced voter-suppression laws in the guise of voter qualification.
Every voter for local, state or federal elections was required to register and demonstrate that he (yes, “he”) was qualified. This typically took the form of extremely difficult mathematical or linguistic tests that you and I would likely fail, including accurately guessing the number of marbles in a large jar. Fortunately for most white males, except possibly for “white trash”, there was an exemption if your grandfather had voted in such elections. Virtually no black could hope to be “grandfathered”. Tsk, tsk.
Voter repression continues to exist in some states, particularly those tinged the same colour as Rudolph’s nose. One of the most clever devices is the “exact match” law which typically requires you to show up for voter registration with several pieces of official ID which exactly match your name on the census lists.
Now, for many of us, that would be no big deal. If your name is Susan Mary Black, and you never got stuck with a pervasive nickname like Bunny, you’re likely in luck. But for poor souls like myself, not so much.
Registered at birth as John Norman Bowley, my paternal grandfather Normand (pictured above) promptly decided I was his namesake and called me Normie. It stuck. Middle name problem. With a little bit of bureaucratic bungling over the years, I have licenses and certificates and credit cards and whatevers featuring J-Norman, Norman J, Norman, Normand, and one or two others. Some of my francophone friends tease me as Jean-Normand. At the hospital I am John. For international and air travel I’ve managed to get enough of these papers to match that I can get on an airplane, but it was, believe me, pretty arduous to get everything all lined up.
And I have three university degrees, several professional designations and I know my way around the system.
I can only imagine what it would be like to come from a single-parent household, birth registration in the name of some long-forgotten father, school certificates in the name of either my birth mother or the aunt who raised me, a military discharge certificate issued by some official who didn't like me or the funny way my name was spelled, and fearful and skeptical of a system that always gave me the short end, anyway. You get the picture.
It would sure be a relief to be grandfathered!
Norman Bowley is a communicator by passion, a lawyer and educator by profession. Thirty-six years of legal practice after ten years as an educator have equipped Norm to teach professionals how to communicate effectively and with power.