Like so many other people, I was pretty much wholly unaware of Barack Obama as a human being until the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Of course, that speech made many of us prick up our ears, and with good reason. Here was a well-spoken, clearly intelligent, optimistic, earnest, yes charming, yes handsome, yes young politician who didn’t sound like a politician – he sounded like a motivational speaker, like an activist, but also like somebody who really believed what he was saying. He was saying things that we’d forgotten – reminding us of all the things we wanted, but at that time, had lost hope of having. And that year, Obama’s words of unity, of “community, faith, and service” weren’t enough to turn a nation – but after four more years of ineptitude, ignorance, poor diplomacy, our civil liberties being trampled on, war crimes, mishandling of funds, of our economy, of foreign policy, of war, of education, of damn near everything an American presidential administration is meant to handle, it seemed like maybe we might be ready.
I didn’t think he had a chance. He was my guy (okay, he and Bill Richardson were my guys), but we all pretty much knew that Hillary was getting the nod. And I was okay with that, honestly – at first. I figured she was very smart, a political animal, someone who knew her business and knew it very well. I thought she was cynical, yes; a dyed-in-the-wool politician, maybe; but ultimately, I thought she’d do a good job, and that she’d represent, for the most part, my fiscal, social, and general political interests. (Or, at least, she’d come as close as any Democratic candidate would.)
But then, Iowa happened. Iowa rocked our whole damn world – everyone I knew stood agape when he won that very first caucus, when Barack-Junior-Senator-Obama took that first state. And that’s when we started to feel it. I remember the excitement my friends and I felt; I remember sitting in front of my television with my mouth open, disbelieving at first; then, a flurry of text messages being shot back and forth faster than we could read them between so many of my friends. How could he have won? How could he have won? In Iowa? We’d expected states in which black voters were a significant percentage of the population; we’d even suspected he might make a good showing. But Iowa? And then such a close second in New Hampshire?
After eight years (okay, seven, then), of the leadership America had been under, I was losing hope. The comic cliché was that all the liberals were threatening to move to Canada, to Europe, to magical lands of socialized medicine, legalized pot, and fundamentally more progressive politics, but I was really trying to figure it out. I’d applied to grad school, but I was looking into that point system for immigration to England, and trying to figure out just how hard it was to become a permanent resident in Canada. America had become an ugly place to me – everything in the news seemed to be about fear, xenophobia, and oppression. The only news programs I could stand were Countdown with Keith Olbermann, anything on NPR or the BBC, and of course, The Daily Show. Everything else was either so insanely slanted, Amerocentric, or both that it wasn’t even really worth watching, because if you tuned in for an hour, you were only going to get ten minutes of news. I was saddened and sickened by the dearth of productive domestic policies, by the abuses in Iraq, by the very existence of Gitmo, and the inarticulate stumblings of our president only added insult to injury. I felt as though whomever the Democrats could put forward would be good enough – Hillary was strong enough and wily enough to play their games and win. And at that point, that was good enough.
But here was a candidate who was playing quite a different game. Here was a candidate who was talking about hope, about change, and people were actually listening. I remember deciding, for the first time, to go out and volunteer for a political campaign; canvassing and phone banking for then-Senator Obama in New Jersey, in mostly-Republican Somerset County, because that was where we were needed. I worked with a friend of mine and alone, and let myself get involved – to really invest in the process. And as Barack won more states, and slowly but surely made more progress, we were feeling real excitement; as Super Tuesday approached – the day of our primary, and twenty-one others – we we’d been glued to the television for every primary and caucus prior, and we knew we were in for a long night – work the next day or no – on February 5th.
It wasn’t easy – it was never easy, we were never sure. It took until June – June! – for us to know for sure that Barack would even be on the ticket. Hillary Clinton had been a tenacious and no-holds-barred kind of opponent. But by a hair, by a nose, by whatever, Barack won the nomination – and the hope that we’d been holding close to our little hearts for so long grew three sizes.
But we weren’t done yet.
Which was crazy, because I think a lot of us felt exhausted just from that damn primary race – it had been insane, and I’d never seen anything like it before. But McCain had had his nom in the bag for what seemed like forever, and even though it seemed impossible that a Republican could win after the last eight years we’d had, the facts were that Barack was much less experienced than McCain – and also, let’s keep it real, he's black.
I’m not sure that I ever quite believed – that most of my brown friends ever fully and 100% believed – that this nation was yet ready to elect a President of Color. I pushed as hard as I could for it – I wore stickers and buttons and put up signs and watched the debates and the pundits and the news as voraciously as any religious devotee might pray. But in my heart, in my secret, still-scared, kinda-cynical heart, I would say to myself, “Yeah, but really? Really? They’re going to vote for Barack Hussein Obama?”
But really. Really.
And that little cynic in me isn’t dead; it’s her who notes, “Well, lucky for us, McCain picked Palin as his running mate and the economy collapsed. Otherwise today would feel hella different, wouldn’t it?”
But you know what? Both McCain picking Palin and the economy collapsing were completely exemplary of Republican policies that made people want change to begin with – and so it’s not so much luck that these events cemented the election for Barack, but really, just the natural progression of things. Of course, I was never certain – and neither were any of my friends – but we hoped, and we wore our t-shirts, and we wore our buttons and stickers and pins, and we talked to people, and we made phone calls, and election night rolled around, and we crossed our fingers and refused to celebrate until the numbers from the West Coast were in.
And then – and then, we celebrated.
I’m so grateful to have been in Boston, in Jamaica Plain, for this event. It was amazing to see – to be out in the community, to be watching the election results come in with people we didn’t know, hugging and crying and whooping; running out into the street, shouting our joy to the world, and having cars honk at us, fists pumping out of windows and shouts of “Yes we did!!!” being echoed back to us as they drove on. Going into the bar across the street from where we’d gone to watch the numbers come in, hugging strangers, taking pictures, laughing, clapping, then watching Barack’s victory speech – watching him feel even more overwhelmed than any of us did, but still managing to be gracious and eloquent and honest.
The joy in the air was palpable, but more importantly was the grace with which I saw Republicans handling it. Granted, we were in the honeymoon phase – we still kind of are – but the Republicans I know (and yes, I know a few!), although skeptical, were being gracious, were accepting, and although some of them inevitably had something to say – they let us have our moment. And I’m thankful for that.
It’s a big deal that Barack Obama got elected president. It’s a big deal not only for Black Americans, or multiracial/multiethnic Americans, or Americans of color, or Democrats, or people from cities. It’s a big deal for all of us. Not everybody voted for Barack Obama - far from it. But an indisputable majority did. People of all races, all classes, all backgrounds, all interests, voted for the things he represents. Voted for positivity, optimism, hope, and doing things differently. Voted for a different kind of America.
And this doesn’t mean the end of racism in America. It’s not proof that everything is okay. But it’s proof that everything is so much better than it was, and that we’re committed to making things better – not just in terms of race relations, or accepting people who are not like us – or accepting people who are like us, but look different. It’s proof that we believe that we can be good again, that we can make things right, that we can be a nation worth being proud of again. And that’s the key, really. Because there’s still a lot to love about America – and it’s about time we got back to working hard at proving it – if not even necessarily to others, then at least to ourselves. (Though I think we will prove it to others - I think we can become a positive force in the world, and gracefully negotiate the fact that not only are we no longer the sole superpower, but that we need to be a positive force on this planet.) These are huge steps - these are big deals. And no one person can make all of this happen - though I do think a president has the power to lead his people to action, to help make goals like these become a reality - especially if he's proactive about getting us to be proactive. I think Barack Obama’s going to lead us there.
Hail to the Chief.