I was in Atlanta this weekend knocking doors in the neighborhood where my brother and his partner live, a quiet street of bungalow and Craftsman houses surrounded, like many streets in the city, by dense wilderness, a neighborhood that started attracting black families in the 60s, hastening the flight of tens of thousands of white people to the surrounding suburbs. It’s a neighborhood changing at the usual gold-rush pace of unfettered capitalist speculation. In the front yard of one house, we passed a lifetime of belongings—VHS tapes, furniture, stuffed animals—heaped in a massive eviction pile, as though waiting to be set ablaze. From the open door of another house with a FOR SALE sign out front, a carpenter covered in sawdust and paint waved at us genially, pendant lights of an open-plan kitchen behind him.
I rapped my knuckle against the wrought-iron screen behind which I could see a man of indeterminate age sitting at a dining table, back lit by a window. He did not stir when I knocked, hardly moved. When the door flung open, a tiny black elder with high cheekbones and wild gray hair stood before us. She spoke in that fast-and-loose drawl that always rearranges the furniture of my exile’s heart when I’m back in Georgia. She exchanged neighborly pleasantries with my brother and his partner. She had already voted—had been so eager, in fact, to vote for Stacey Abrams to be the first black woman governor in US history that she’d showed up too early for early voting.
“What about him?” we asked of the silhouette at the dining table.
It was her son.
“Is he registered?”
“I got him registered, yes,” she said. “But he got a felony.” By the way her gaze swept the space between us, we knew the answer was also a story, neither easy to remember or recount.
“Reginald!” she threw his name over her shoulder.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said.
“Come here for a minute.” As he rose from the table and came toward us, we saw his white tee shirt, red flip-flips and torn jeans come into focus, and his face—handsome, goateed, covered in tats—brighten as he stepped into daylight.
She’d been excited to have him back from prison in time for Georgia’s bid at history, which had turned into a referendum on voter suppression and the future of the South. She’d made sure he was registered, and when we checked his status on our phones, the database verified that he was, too. “I’m still on probation though,” he said.
Where most states allow a person with a felony to vote after release—and two very white states, Vermont and Maine, even allow voting while incarcerated—a few states don’t let you vote even after you’re free. Most are in states with large black populations, like Georgia, whose Constitution denies the right to vote to anyone charged with a felony involving crimes of “moral turpitude,” but does not clearly define what specific crimes those are. It also re-defines the term “sentence” now to include probation and parole and the payment of all fees and fines. Which meant chances were very high that he’d have been arrested on the spot, charged with another felony, and sent back to jail for merely attempting to vote in this election, as the online system said he could.
For Reginald and over five million other disenfranchised people with felonies, a disproportionate percentage of whom are black, freedom has an asterisk the size of America. In addition to the tactics making headlines this month, it’s this brand of voter suppression I have been thinking about the past few days. I have been thinking about Reginald and his mother, their warmth for each other and for us, neighbors, strangers. And about what moral turpitude even means in a place where a powerful man like Brian Kemp can be rewarded for his depravity with more power. About the depths of American cruelty, the width of freedom, the length of a sentence. And I have been thinking about my last glimpse of Reginald as he went back inside his mother’s house.
“You know you have the best mother, right?” my brother’s partner said.
“I know,” said Reginald, retaking his seat at the dining table and becoming once again a beautiful black silhouette.