Recently Miami artist Antonio Roberts gave me a giclée. It’s an interpretation of Gordon Parks’ American Gothic, which is a rendering of Grant Wood’s iconic image of the same name, that of a farm couple holding a pitchfork and standing in front of a house. Famously, Parks’ parody shows another America: a black cleaning woman holding a broom and mop, our nations’ flag behind her. The Robert’s piece hanging at the bottom of my staircase follows in this tradition. A little black girl wearing a tattered dress stands before an American flag that dominates the background. During this election season, the symbolism of Robert’s piece (and those that came before it) has finally resonated with me.
Both of my grandmothers were raised in Jim Crow’s segregated south. One became a cook, the other a laundress. They grew up under the threat of formidable poll taxes, demeaning and diverting election exams meant to shame, deny, and exclude. Their ballot wasn’t always counted, but their right to it mattered.
Joan Didion wrote in Slouching towards Bethlehem “the center was not holding” in 1960s America. There was social and economic tumult. My mother came of age in this America. She voted, sat in, stood up. But did it matter she asked when, years later, she had to keep her three daughters out of school every year on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday until the government ratified a national holiday. Now she avers, “The democratic process belongs to everyone. We’re included. We have an entire month!”
My ancestors imagined this era. It was clear in their minds. Now here I stand at the bottom of the staircase in a home with properly designed bookcases, a grand piano in the corner, a German car parked safely in a garage that stays warmer than many of my relatives homes ever did, looking upon this work of art and finally understanding the sacrifices that have brought me here. My ancestors refused to believe in an exclusive America in the hopes that I would be part of an inclusive electoral process.
For them, at the very least, I will continue to monitor the presidential candidates who are courting my vote. I will line them up, side-by-side, will weigh whether or not they see me merely as “uninsurable” a “swing vote” a “patriotic conservative” a “liberal feminist” or an “environmentalist.” I will continue calling multiple campaign offices for clarification on their domestic and foreign policies. Do they see the same overcrowded school buses I see? Are they listening to the poor, to those disillusioned young people Cornell West described in Democracy Matters, those found in both the “wealthy vanilla suburbs and chocolate cities?” I will make notations in the journals I plan to leave behind for my grandchildren’s children. I’ll write in the margins, in italics offset by exclamation points, my vote matters. I am part of this process. This I believe.
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