Sunday, November 16, 2008

Seven Days in History

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Saturday November 8, 2008

This time last week I was nervous. Anxious. I felt an urge to do something more to get Barack Obama elected. I had already contributed a few dollars to the campaign but a request made during his speeches of late kept ringing in my head, “If you’ll just knock on a few doors for me, if you’ll make a few calls for me…”

“I’m with the Obama Campaign!”

I disdain being the irritant behind unsolicited calls and visits. I thought about canvassing for Barack before; I even signed up with a local field office. But my fear of dealing with being cussed out by random McCain supporters kept me from participating. Not the cussing out part but my reaction. Like many Americans of all races, this election is personal. I have yet to figure out a way to take rude, ignorant, and opposing comments in stride.

The Saturday before the election, I said to hell with it.

The field office at Queen Bee’s salon on Columbia Street dwells in Washington Shores, a mostly black lower to middle class neighborhood. I walked in to the shop and was greeted by a small 50ish white woman with a calm, mild manner. Her name was Jan.

While I waited for my friend Natasha to arrive, Jan explained a canvassing packet to me. Within the manila folder were several documents. One gave tips and advice for successful canvassing: how to introduce yourself, ask people if they need rides to the polls, take water and comfortable shoes, don’t waste time at unanswered doors because there’s a lot of ground to cover, and my favorite—“Be courteous and polite. Remember, you’re representing Barack Obama.”

The packet contained a Google map and directions from the field office to the first home in the area identified on the packet. The map showed dots of the specific houses. There were about eight to 10 pages of voters’ information, including their address, age, and party affiliation.


“Have you been working at this office all along?” I asked Jan.

“I’ve been here three days,” she replied in a soft Southern accent. Jan said she was from Texas, a non-budging red state. She came to Florida that week to volunteer on the Obama campaign in a state that he had a chance of turning blue.

Man that’s commitment, I thought. Jan obviously had a lot of free time on her hands. “So are you retired?”

“Oh no, this is my vacation time,” she said. “This election is just too important.”

Natasha arrived and we headed out to her car to go canvassing. It began to drizzle and neither one of us had an umbrella. “Let me see if they have anything inside,” I said, trotting back to Queen Bee’s. Jan didn’t have umbrellas but there were packets of emergency ponchos on-hand.

I walked swiftly back to Natasha’s car, cool sky water wetting my clothes, hair, and face. I thought of the images of Barack Obama the previous week at a rained-out rally in Pennsylvania before a crowd of 9,000 sloshy attendees. (McCain had cancelled his outdoor rally in the same area that day.) I was inspired by the thought of his uncovered head, just a jacket, jeans and sneakers in 40 degree weather and forceful winds driving the rain drops into his face like needles.

The drizzle let up by the time we parked streetside in our chosen neighborhood 5 minutes away from the field office. There was still one thing nagging me about our task that day. I thought our goal was to convince people to vote for Obama, a factually unneeded effort in an all black neighborhood. I wondered if we should knock on doors in Metro West or Winter Park where we were more likely to run into non-Obama supporters. “Do you think we’re going to be as effective in this neighborhood as we would in another neighborhood?” I asked Natasha.

Early voting had been going on in Florida for two weeks and Natasha explained that the lists we had were of registered Democrats who had not voted yet. “Oh wow! Okay, cool.” Our efforts were indeed going to be of value here.

I was still uneasy about this whole door-knocking thing so Natasha and I visited the first few houses together. Some folks weren’t home, others had voted that day. A light-skinned heavyset woman with short hair and an open-faced gold tooth came to the door of one house. She sat out on the porch, eager to chat. The woman said she had voted already, but her brow furrowed as she told us that her man was a manager at Popeye’s and wouldn’t be able to get off work to vote.

We brainstormed ideas about absentee ballots and other alternatives for the woman’s boyfriend to vote. The woman noticed Natasha’s “Women for Obama” button. She asked her for it. “Oh, uh…sure,” Natasha said, removing the pin from her blouse.

The woman then turned her attention to my “Yes We Can” button with Barack and Michelle giving pound. “Ooh, I like that! Can I have it?” she asked, the gold in her mouth twinkling. “Oh I need mine for all these other doors we gotta knock on,” I said. You already have Natasha’s button now you want mine too? What kind of greedy some-of-a…

A bald gentleman came to the door as we talked and said he would be voting Tuesday. Another man squeezed his way into the door opening soon thereafter. The five of us talked about volunteering, voting, and so on. The last guy to join the conversation also noticed my button. “Can I have it?” he asked. Okay, house full of hustlers. I declined and was more than ready to leave their porch.

By that time, I had built up enough courage to split the canvassing packet with Natasha and hit up some doors myself. The packet was organized so that odd-numbered houses were on different pages than even-numbered houses on the same street. Therefore, you and your partner can work both sides of a street at the same time and still be within sight of each other. I knew Obama ran a tight campaign, but the fact that every detail down to house numbers had been analyzed gave me a new appreciation for the attentiveness of the organization.

“Who is it?” folks called from behind the doors.

“I’m with the Obama campaign!” I shouted back. Damn that felt good. I spoke with more people and left door hangers with my written note, “Please Vote!” on the doorknobs of the absent. Many people had already voted the day before or that day and it had not registered on our lists yet. Still others weren’t down with early voting and pledged to vote on Tuesday.

One resident’s response, however, kicked the sense out of me.

“We will not be voting,” the hefty 60-year-old woman said through a partially opened door.

“Oh…ummm…” My mouth hung open as my brain searched for logical words. As if prodded by my stuttering, the woman explained that she had medical issues with her legs and could not stand up for long periods. As she spoke, I studied her shaped eyebrows and short haircut, her smooth beige skin, searching for something.

I peered down at my list. A 61-year-old man with the same last name also lived in the house, her husband. I asked if he’d be voting. She said no.

This woman had drunk from colored-only water fountains that I’ve only heard stories about. She remembered her exact location when Martin Luther King was assassinated. She had been led to the back of the bus as a child.

“Okay well I hope you all reconsider,” I mumbled, turning away, head down, still searching for a reason why this eyewitness to the civil rights struggle could dismiss her and her husband’s right to vote for an incredible black man. I blinked back tears.

“If I can get over there I’ll try,” she called after me. Was that guilt in her voice? Good.

I rejoined Tasha and we headed back to the field office. We sat at the table at the front and ate. Other canvassers came in and dropped off their packets. Jan tallied numbers and assorted piles of data. The field office manager, Robert, a 20-something dark-skinned brother with shoulder length dreads came in and sat down to a computer and engaged in light conversation. The ladies in the back getting their hair done chatted and cussed and laughed. One of their daughters, Jazzlyn, sat at the table with me, asking questions and rambling about 7-year-old life.

“Anything else I can help with?” I asked Natasha. It was going on 8 o’clock. “Sure!” I was given a laptop to enter the day’s data: Obama supporter? Bad address? Not home? Natasha ran out to get us tall cups of hot chocolate from AMPM.

“Going home to get some rest?” I asked as Robert headed towards the door later on.

“Oh no. No rest until November 5th.”

Tuesday November 4, 2008

The day had come.

Kerri, Keri, John, and I joined a couple hundred Obama supporters at Club Whispers to watch the results come in. All 22 screens in the venue were tuned to CNN. The dj spun hip-hop and R&B during slow periods.

“I’m hungry,” Kerri said. I had been thinking the same thing. It was about a quarter to 11 pm and Obama’s 207 had not budged. We decided to walk down the strip mall in search of food. I spotted the Underground Blues spot on the other end.

The joint was small, four or five white patrons sat stoic at the bar. What sounded like rock music blared from the stereo. We turned our backs and examined paper menus. I felt uncomfortable with my “Yes We Can” Obama pin on my chest in the barren, red neckish atmosphere. It seemed odd that there were people in the country who appeared oblivious and apathetic to the history that was happening at that moment. We peered at the menus longer than necessary.

“Do they even have the news on in here?” I said as my eyes located the first TV behind the bar, showing a sports game. The second TV showed the same game. I was about to suck my teeth when I laid eyes on the third television screen. It was the news with a banner on the screen that read: BARACK OBAMA ELECTED PRESIDENT – CNN PROJECTION.

Had to be an assumption. A guess. An estimate. Maybe a good possibility. The men at the bar sipped their beers.

“That can’t be right,” Keri mumbled. We whirled around, our thoughts the same: get the hell out of Dodge and head back to Whispers for confirmation. We had only been gone 15 minutes, how could they already be declaring Obama president? Keri was about to start jogging down the sidewalk but we maintained a brisk power walk.

As we approached the club, a 20-something year old brother was crouched over on his cell phone, sobbing. “I have never been this proud to be black in my entire life!” he cried. Keri, Kerri, and I looked at each other and dipped inside.

People were shouting and smiling, “Whoooo!” was heard all around. We hugged other people and each other. I stared at the nearest TV, drinking in the words: BARACK OBAMA ELECTED PRESIDENT – CNN PROJECTION. A total of 298 electoral votes had been awarded to Obama, and still counting.

The error-free win still seemed too smooth to be true. Where’s the recount? What about the rest of the states? What about disenfranchised voters? What about the Bradley Effect? What about the fact that Obama’s a black man and this is still America? Things like this, like becoming freaking president, don’t happen to black people. Not here. You might be American Idol, you might be CEO of a Fortune 500 company, or hell, secretary of state, but black folks don’t get to be the president. Not in the country where Obama’s preparedness and initiative were openly called “uppity” and “arrogant” by pundits and high ranking government officials. Not in a country where a Republican women’s group placed Obama’s caricature surrounded by watermelons on a dollar. Not in this world where a London man was shot three times for wearing an Obama shirt. Not in a country where a black preacher can’t speak the truth about the ills of America’s past without being called “anti-American” and goodness, “racist.” Not in a country where politicians willfully mock community organizers on national television. Not in a country where a Christian man is incorrectly called Muslim, and even if he was, that’s somehow a bad thing. Not in a country where intellect and physical fitness are downfalls. Not in a country where after being on TV nearly everyday for two years, people still claim they don’t know you.

It wasn’t long before McCain gave the best speech of his campaign—his concession speech. A close-up of Sarah Palin showed tear-filled eyes. A sprinkle of expletives escaped my mouth. Keri and Kerri looked back at me wide-eyed. “Sorry, had to cuss. Turret’s.”

And then, the man. This speech was different than the campaign speeches of hope and inspiration and “yes we can.” Those speeches were meant to encourage, to urge. They were “feel good.” This speech, however, was the speech of a man who was taking control as leader of the free world. While gracious and humble, it undeniably commanded the respect of everyone under the sound of his voice. Before, he was some Americans’ candidate. Now he was every Americans’ leader.

Hot tears flowed down my cheeks as I rocked side to side in my spot on the dance floor. We were slaves in this country. This man is joining the ranks of 43 men before him, some of whom owned people that looked like him. President of the United States of America.

As he walked off the stage that night, Obama didn’t smile like he did when he strolled off the stage at rallies. Even though he had just executed a speech for the history books, his expression showed that the significance and implications of what had occurred were still sinking in.

Dawn of a New Day

Sunlight streaming through the living room blinds evidenced that my goal wakeup time of 6 am had passed. It was 8:30. The television was still on, newscasters reminding me that it wasn’t all a dream. Uncle Sam had not shown up with an evil grin screaming, “PSYCHE!” I had taken the day off, knowing that no matter what the results of the election, I'd be no good to the workplace that day. I rolled over, pressed power on the stereo, and tuned into the Steve Harvey Morning Show. Barack Obama had indeed been elected president of the United States.

I smiled at every Obama/Biden bumper sticker and yard sign I saw while heading to the grocery store. The customers in Publix seemed to push their carts with a certain ease as they glided up and down the aisles. I searched the eyes of passersby for a sign of mutual joy so I could give a thumbs-up or whisper, "We did it!"

My sister Hope and I met at Golden Corral for lunch. Between helpings of popcorn shrimp and fried chicken, we recapped the emotions and memories of the past few months that culminated the previous night.

It felt like Christmas.

(Yeah, sounds hokey, I know. Obama has a way of bringing out the mushies in people.)

November 8, 2008

“Russian President Dmitry Medvedev warned in a nationally televised address Wednesday that he will deploy short-range missiles near Poland capable of striking NATO territory if the new Obama administration presses ahead with plans to build a missile defense shield in Europe.” (Washington Post)

I was used to “Obama campaign” but whoa, did this new word add a hell of a lot of impact. “Obama administration.” That’s official.

After lingering on that thought, I drank in the meaning of the news article. Russia was already talking smack about bucking an Obama administration. My nerves piqued. Like a parent sending their child off to college, it’s not that I didn’t believe Obama couldn’t handle it, I just felt a sudden rush of worry about him. I wondered if the threat rattled him as much as it did me. Then I remembered why I voted for this man. I calmed down. Obama embodies wisdom and judgment unknown to many. He also chose a foreign policy guru in Joe Biden. Our guy would be fine.

Just three days after his historic win, President-elect Obama held his first post-election news conference on Friday. Once again his demeanor, much like during his acceptance speech, was different than it had been during the campaign. He seemed grave. Faint bags dwelled under his eyes. I wondered what kind of secrets had been shared during his intelligence briefings, secrets to which he was not privy as a senator. Had the skeletons of a nation shook his spirit? Either way the man needed rest. There's a big job ahead of him.

(Believe it or not, there is an extended version of this narrative. Please contact me if you are interested in publishing.)

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