09 November 2008

When the Historic is Personal

So many articles have been written in the past week trying to encapsulate the "historic" nature of this presidential election. Yes, we elected our first African American president. But in many ways, this election is less about Obama than it is about us, I think. As J is so fond of reminding me, he's only a symbol. But what is he a symbol of? As I have watched reactions to the election beaming into my computer from around the country and around the world, it seems to me that this election is a deeply personal one with individual meaning.

I signed up as a supporter of Barack Obama and made my first donation to the campaign within hours of Obama announcing his candidacy. And sue me, but I think that gives me some street cred in this discussion. I wasn't a disaffected Hillary supporter or a PUMA with a eleventh hour change of heart. I was there on day one. And thus, I am going to try to express what it means to me. Settle in folks, this one may take a while.

We all knew that Hillary was going to run. I assumed she was my candidate. I honestly thought we were going to see some combination of a Hillary Clinton/John Edwards ticket. Yawn. I mean, I like Edwards' youth and upbeat attitude, but he is too GQ and too little substance for my tastes. And as I have mentioned before, Hillary Clinton just hasn't impressed me. I mean, I want to like her. I think she earned her chops and all. But, meh. You know? She just smacked of "been there, done that." I didn't need to relive the first Clinton administration. Now if Bill had been able to run again, I might have had a different opinion of this race. But that is neither here nor there.

Barack was neither GQ nor old school. I had a reasonable familiarity of him having gone through his first campaign for Senator. I liked him. I liked his demeanor. I liked his intellect. I liked his inclusiveness. He appeals to my better nature. I can't really place my finger on one time or one thing that he did that convinced me. I do recall that I read most of the information on Obama.com about his positions on various issues. I have no idea what John Edwards positions are on anything.

For all this talk of his being a ground-breaking black politician, I can say only this. In Illinois, black politicians are a dime a dozen. Harold Washington, Jesse Jackson II, ward aldermen, and if I recall correctly, Senator Carol Mosley-Braun was the first female black candidate for the presidency. Being black and being powerful isn't Earth-shattering stuff around here. And honestly, it isn't hard to listen to Obama and forget that he's black. He doesn't have that East Coast cadence to his speech. He doesn't have a distinct southern influence either. Except when he says Montgumry, Alabamuh or the United States of Amurica, I am amusingly reminded of Bernie Mac turning to the camera for one of his television sidebars with "Amurica". It is easy to forget that Obama is black.

Sometimes it took Michelle Obama standing by his side to remind me. Like, "Oh yeah. There's that." And I can't look at his children, who look like dolls in their pretty campaign dresses without thinking of those little girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. I don't know why. Symbolism, maybe.

I guess what I'm trying to get at is that I was invested in this campaign. From the beginning I felt like I was fighting for my guy. But for me, it wasn't entirely different than my support of Bill Clinton. I am a Democrat. I used to be a flaming, far-left extremist Democrat. Now, I've moved slightly rightward, but still firmly within the Democratic camp. I was fighting for my Democratic candidate. To put it in perspective, elections for me are like Kentucky-Duke basketball games. It is clear from the outside who should win and who should lose. There is the team with God on their side and then there is Duke. No great moral battles are won or lost out there on that basketball court. There is no great moral victory in the game (although perhaps there should be given the legacy of Adolph Rupp). It is merely competition.

I hang out mostly with white folks. I've discussed this before. Internet friendships aside, I was entirely removed from the historic importance of his candidacy to the African American community. My black friends, who I mostly talk to on the phone, were split in their support. Guv claimed he was a Republican and was voting for McCain. Mark said the same thing. Of course, I know now they were only yanking my chain. But, Guv teased me about my support. He was forever asking me what it was that made me so gung-ho for Obama. I'd explain. I'd try to be patient. He was forever non-committal. I was frustrated, then infuriated that he wouldn't budge in his support of McCain. He would just laugh and change the subject. He wouldn't even discuss his opinions. He just kept asking questions. I wondered more than once if he simply didn't want to get his hopes up. Only Clint was with me. Clint was all in, too.

So it was never about race to me. Even when I went to the rally in St. Louis, it wasn't about race. Then one day, it was. That was the day I went to Charleston, Missouri, and canvassed with Curtis. We knocked on a fair number of doors of African Americans that day. At first it was just me and Curtis doing the spiel. After a bit, I began to see that people looked at me hard when they came to their doors. They looked at me hard, but they spoke to Curtis. To this day, I still don't know what they thought when they saw the two of us on the stoop. Did I look like some sort of well-meaning white person trying to tell them what to do for their own good? Did Curtis and I just make an odd couple? Did they think that the Obama campaign purposefully sent out an interracial couple to show diversity? I'll never know. I just know that I got some strange looks.

But that day, listening to those voters we sought to convince to get to the polls, I heard something different in their voices. Some things you have to experience to get. I heard and I understood in a way no one ever could have described to me that this election had great, significant, and lasting meaning to these folks.

I have never talked here about Michael. Michael lives in Michigan. East Lansing. I opened myself up to him and he opened my eyes to the realities of his world. We never discussed it. He did it by being himself. The things that Michael taught me have changed me forever. He taught me that there are black men afraid to take even one day of their earned vacation for fear of management figuring they can do without them. There were a few times I was frustrated with him for not speaking up to his bosses. You see, Michael is brilliant. Granted, he is a emotional mess but, hey, who isn't? But there he is, Brilliant Michael afraid to take even one day off for fear of losing his job. He knows in his heart the black guy is the first one laid off. He knows what it feels like to have a boss always take credit for his work. He knows what it means to have to work twice as hard and be twice as good. He's lived it every day of his life. The thing about Michael was he never once made me feel bad for complaining about the stupid crappy stuff in my life. For my petty little concerns. I wonder how he did that. I wonder if he had lived in his reality for so long that he didn't even notice the disparity in our lives anymore. There were times that I felt so sorry for him.

Anyway, maybe it was because of Michael that I even noticed what was happening in Charleston. I don't think I convinced one reluctant voter of how important it was to get to the polls on election day. I don't think there was a voter who intended to stay away. No. I think the real value of that day was how they helped me to understand something I never would have understood otherwise. That for people different than me, Obama DOES have meaning. He is a symbol. He is the symbol of hope. Maybe not for J. Maybe not for younger people.

I realized that day in Charleston that I was rooting for the home team and at least part of the boosters were staking their lives, their hopes, and their dreams on that election. There were people daring to hope of a world where they could cast aside those concerns about job security, about the inequality of lay offs, about the credit deferred. While I can't speak for them, my feeling of it was this: they just wanted to be able to relax. They wanted to lay down those extra burdens. They wanted to stop being afraid. They wanted the playing field level. They didn't want more. They didn't expect more. They just wanted what I always assumed everyone had.

When they called the race, I had lost my sense of it as a competition. Some part of those people in Charleston had become part of me. It was more important to me then that I acknowledge that moment as more meaningful for those different than me. At that moment, I gave away that moment to those who truly deserved it. And in that moment, I felt more unified with my countrymen than I have ever felt in the past. It was not my moment, but it was not just their moment. It was Amurica's moment.

I wish Bernie Mac had lived to see this. He would have made me laugh. And I wonder if Michael will finally take a day off.


  1. I don't think I'm representative of young people -- as you keep reminding me, young people were pretty riled up for the big "O". Just, myself, like I said -- I've seen symbols, and I've been frustrated by how they're often used to justify decreased effort, or dismissed as an exception, or used as a continual rallying cry... while nothing really changes, and no one really changes their behavior. I've seen symbols, but I've seen less action, and being the lovable pragmatic bugaboo that I am, I've gotten less and less into symbols over the years. A trivialish example -- an ex-girlfriend and I were debating about being vegetarian, etc., and I was sort of with my advisor in the fact that it matters less what you eat and more what you do to change the system. What you personally eat can be sybmolic, but does little to change things either way. Yes, of course, it's good/important to walk the talk, but really, if you're going to choose between being a vegetarian OR being politically active, it's better to do the latter (though of course they're not either/or). And at some point if you actually are highly involved in a movement, it's important to walk the talk (though with meat of course, it's more how it's made than the fact of meat itself for me, but that's neither here nor there.) My girlfriend at the time, however, felt like it was important, symbolically, to consider vegetarianism (though she had trouble keeping to it too). I didn't really fully understand or empathize... but I realized, if I, who like meat so much, give it up for my beliefs... if I'm the one hanging with my friends and I say I'm vegetarian... that actually might make them stop and think. It doesn't change them by itself, but it can be important.

    So symbols are, I know, important. They just don't tend to personally touch me, in my own heart, overmuch. But I'm constantly trying to remember and appreciate how important they are, even if they do not touch me. As you said, there's no 4th if there's no first... I'm just impatient and always read for the next step. Such dissatisfaction can be annoying... and can be motivating. =]

  2. I'm going to stop mentioning you in my posts. You seem to think I'm criticizing you when I'm not. =p

    But now that you bring it up, wasn't it you that said the problem with being non-religious was the lack of symbols and ceremony? Seemed to me to be something along those lines when I was going off about marriage one day.

    And ya know, I can see your point about symbols. I mean, what is a degree but a symbol? And once you have it, it doesn't mean as much to you as it did before you had it. I think humans are captivated by "firsts", the same way we are interested in world records and arcane baseball trivia. Mark Spitz was a symbol of excellence until Michael Phelps came along. We make a big deal about it until the record is broken. We celebrate the new record, but soon enough it's just another entry in the trivia column. We do this over and over and over. As a people, we love this crap.

    But this symbol, this dark candidate. It's important first because the record for whiteness stood so long. It is important because for so long non-whites were under the thumb of whites. This isn't baseball. This is real life. People were enslaved, repressed, discriminated against, ostracized, cast out, spit on, sprayed with water hoses, had the dogs set on them. White children humiliated black men in public and dared them to take a stand. They took it. Absorbed it. Internalized it. Understood it. Understood that no matter what the white folks say, once upon a time, they made it abundantly clear what they thought of them in their hearts.

    And what have they done? Given a chance....even an unbelievably slim outside chance....they succeeded. Obama is a bona fida moral victory.

    And I don't know that young people get that. It's not you, J, it's how the world has changed. I think Jesse Jackson was crying in Grant Park for different reasons than those kids were crying on the campus of Spelman College. Sometimes I think we live in a different world from our parents. And my story of Michael and my story of those people I met in Charleston were meant to point out one thing. This symbol isn't of the first black anything. This isn't another entry in the trivia column. This symbol is a statement to those people who can't quite believe that things have really changed.

    My hope is that that generation can lay those burdens down. Your generation---ahem---MY generation seems to have already done so. People OUR age are free at last in a country their parents (or grandparents) just couldn't allow themselves to trust. And why is this important? Because we can't get anywhere we hope to get if not everyone feels that they are part of the process and therefore part of the solution. It's important because I don't want those people dying thinking the world is the same place it was in the 60s. I am willing to allow anyone who chooses to make Obama their symbol to celebrate him as loud and as long as they like. As long as it is a symbol for what is good in America.

  3. You're right. Obama purposefully downplayed race. When he brought it up, he mentioned it to cover his own ass. Even then, I thought it was a superb speech. So race doesn't matter?

    I didn't see one headline last Wednesday that didn't mention OUR FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN PRESIDENT. So, I'm guessing, um, race still matters.

    Now I admit to being something of a johnny-come-lately to any understanding of the lasting effects of racism. Ditto that for sexism. And I'm not sure what to do about that but chip away at it as we can. Sure, political representation is important. So is professional opportunity. But equally as important is social and cultural influences.

    Culturally, blacks are marginalized. Urban black youth are the only dominant cultural influence we have out of that community, and I don't see that as a positive. When we come to think of blacks as "good doctors" or "shrewd financial planners" as is commonly thought of Jews, we'd be somewhere better than here, but not substantially better as an ideal, if you know what I mean.

    Politically, I think that black community has done things the women's movement can only dream about. There is a stable of up-and-coming black politicians and civic leaders ready to lead into the next several decades. Not true of women. Still fighting the perception of powerful women as bitches. Still struggling with the very real issues of pay inequality and glass ceilings. Women's contributions in the workforce are seen as secondary to men's. And things are worse in our homes. Women are still seen as the primary caregivers and homemakers. You want to know why D won't marry again? D wanted a partner. D doesn't have the time or the will to subjugate her happiness to ensure the happiness of someone who takes it all for granted. Maybe it was just him, but I found myself drowning in laundry and vacuuming and yard work while my progressive man sat on his ass watching football. And how do you solve that? Electing women leaders? Probably not. I couldn't solve it from the inside, so I just got out. So TOTALLY off the subject, if I can give you one piece of vitally important life advice, it is this. Do NOT take your lover for granted. Do not EXPECT her to fulfill traditional roles. Negotiate responsibility and do it fairly. Keep up your end of the bargain. I don't give a shit how much your mother babied you (not that she did and not that you act like one), when you are a grown up, you have to act like an adult. Trust me on this.

    Anyhoo, I just don't see these kinds of problems matching up well with the professional and political issues that seem to be at the fore of the racial discussion. In that way, women's issues and black issues are not the same. If it is even possible, the subjugation of women is even more deeply ingrained than racism.