Four Hundred Years Forward: Freedom in Our Time

November 10, 2019

The Right to Vote – to be “guaranteed and protected” to do so – is the signet evidence of full citizenship. Solomon might have said, ‘Voting’ “is the principal thing – but with all thy getting get understanding.”

If you have children, you have probably heard this familiar monotonous chant, uttered in full exasperation, from back seats of your vehicles while traveling excitedly and anticipating arrival at a desired destination – a park or Grandma’s house –“Are We There Yet?”

“No, not yet,” is the usual reply, most frequently and emphatically stated by the driver.

This same question takes on a more somber tone when asked, also with some measure of exasperation, by “Blacks in America,” for over one-and-a-half centuries, about our rights as humans and full citizens of the United States of America. The question is particularly salient when asked in voting booths and polling places, where our rights are not only challenged, and our power threatened, but we are made to feel like foreigners in our own land.
We have been traveling for a long time in a similar vehicle of promise, on a long and circuitous journey to “Freedom and Equal Justice.” The promise of arrival at such a destination is just over the horizon. Yet, time and time again, our experiences, our outcomes, our lives demonstrate that we have many more miles to go.

How much further until we gain equal access and opportunity? How much further until we arrive at a country, a region, marked by racial equity? How much further until all institutions open their doors wide to us, regardless of race, ethnicity or pigmentation? Are we still making detours, swerving between de facto and de jure segregation? Where is the sign which reads, this turn “free of gerrymandering,” and the question of citizenship, identifiable by all reasonable accord and evidence, one is still denied the right of the franchise. To block, hinder, or deny the vote to a fellow countryperson, who otherwise qualifies by every echelon of criteria, does not just reduce the meaningful citizenship for that single person – no, it threatens and demeans the value to the entire institution of citizenship.

After centuries of nation building, race remains a justification by which our rights and rewards are defined, by which we continue to measure the value of human life, and negate the contributions of hundreds of thousands of lives. There is a deep stain on America, from the blood and sweat equity stolen from our ancestors, stolen from us still, and utilized in the building of this nation. From domestic wars to foreign wars – we have fought to sell a dream, a dream that Blacks in America have been denied. We have pillaged and bartered the world’s great resources – in exchange for the ideal that equality of opportunity is available to any American. At what great cost have we sold the world a dream that this country has yet to realize?

As we are all aware, this great dream is defined by the right to participate in the democratic process and what is more democratic than the right to vote? What is more salient to our citizenship than enshrining this right in law and policy? This small yet very powerful way in which we give voice and representation to our humanity, to our personal and political interests, to our communities. And yet, it remains under threat and challenge. Why does, qualified voting, without complications, make the arrival at the destination so complex?
How many times throughout history have Blacks been offered this unblemished promise – the right to vote? Freedom to participate in a hard won democratic process, without complications, only to see it fade in the sun, another empty promise, withering away under the shadow of our hope for liberation.

Freedom to vote is, explicitly, the freedom to “be free and feel free,” indeed, and does not make any distinctions of any artificial or imaginary differences. And, with all of the bona fide, diverse ethnics within this Republic, on board of this vehicle of “representative democracy,” and yet on this journey to a more perfect union for 230 years plus, I say – let’s all on board be excited by the arrival – and no, America – “we are not there yet.”

–Jack A. Kirkland