Are we free yet? Whose country is this? In this country, people vote for all sorts of reasons. Voting is visceral. Voting is intellectual. Voting is protest, praise, and remembrance. In this country, we all get to choose to vote…or do we? Throughout our collective history, voting and the power it can yield has often been treated as a game of keeping away between the privileged and the oppressed. Those in power and privilege have denied and suppressed the ability to vote to those they deem unacceptable, undesirable, or politically impotent. Whether or not you were allowed to vote depended largely on being male, white, and land-owning. We have danced with the poll tax, literacy, and any number of coercions so those in charge could maintain a sense of gatekeeping. So I ask again, can you call a country yours if you aren’t allowed to voice your desires?
I’m reminded of the lyrics of a song sung by the incredible group Sweet Honey in the Rock in the documentary Africans In America – find it if you haven’t watched it. The song begins with a low strain of “Your country? How can it be yours? Before the Pilgrims landed, we were here.” Again, whose country is it? Today, it is all too clear that this country is divided. Split in ways, I have never witnessed in my half-century on this earth. I would not be surprised if America chose to experience a second Civil War.
It seems like we are rehashing many of the same issues again – who gets to be in power and who belongs. The old wounds are being ripped open again – – those still festering because they were never properly tended in the beginning. Hard questions. Hard conversations to have if you can find someone with civility; a rarefied commodity these days in this arena of political gladiatorial bloodsport.
It is easy to feel like a singular voice crying in the wilderness. It can leave us feeling that our individual votes are meaningless. Do it anyway. I cannot tell you why you vote. Those reasons are as individual as the people answering the question. I never fail to think about the generations before me as I enter the building and stand in line. Moving forward a step at a time, I think about my ancestor who fought at the Battle of King’s Mountain in 1780 in South Carolina; a battle in the war for freedom and the ability to determine our destiny as individuals and as a country. I also think about my grandfather, J.C. Steinecipher, who served with the 35th Infantry Division in World War II, fighting to keep others free. He was shot on three separate occasions between December 1944 and March 1945, nearly being killed at the Battle of the Bulge. He was shot in the wrist while holding a gun near his head. I think about my former mother-in-law, Dr. Elizabeth Walter, who spoke up and pushed back against segregation in the 1960s and demanded equality for minorities. Her efforts were not small though she rarely spoke of them.
Being branded a radical, she came to the attention of the government. As she once recounted, “I kept seeing the same men in different cars everywhere we went.” Living in fear, she took my ex-wife and fled the country, remaining an expatriate for several years. Later she took up the cause of women with the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and the poor by being instrumental in founding the Tuscaloosa chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), founded before the state’s chapter. She was a firebrand of singular vision and not a southern lady to be trifled with. So, why am I telling you all of this? These are the people and the reasons that push me to vote. Each of us needs to find those voices to guide and remind us of how precious and fragile a gift is – voting. Voting is freedom. As the great civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer said, “nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”
Jonathan Cain is a native of Florence, Alabama, and has been the current Curator for the Tennessee Valley Museum of Art located in Tuscumbia, AL, since January 2020. He functioned in that role previously for several years before leaving to pursue a career in education. He holds an undergraduate degree in graphic design from the University of North Alabama and graduate degrees from both the University of Mississippi (MFA – Sculpture) and the University of North Alabama (MA – Clinical Mental Health). He is an eclectic artist who likes to pursue many different media.