Thursday, May 24, 2012

Yes, Virginia. There's a Black Man in the White House.

In September of 2004 I met my friend Karen for a drink - she had a drink, I had iced tea.  I was about 3 months pregnant with my first at the time. The upcoming election was the hot topic of course - we always talked about politics. And men. The one man we talked about more than any other that evening wasn't John Kerry, or even Bush for that matter.

It was "that guy." "Did you see that guy speak at the convention?" I asked. "You mean the black Bobby Kennedy?" Yep, that would be the one. "Can we just make him our President?  'You, we pick you.'  Sorry Senator Kerry, you're a nice man but we need this guy right now." We laughed about that for a minute, then the conversation got quiet.  I looked at her and said, "It's never going to happen is it?" "No.  Probably not."  Then we started to list the reasons why Barack Hussein Obama would probably never be our President.  Well, there were three reasons right there.  Oh, and he's African American, just to add a dash of unlikely to all that improbable.

Probably not in my lifetime.  For the first time these words rang in my ears. There is something profoundly melancholy about that phrase.  I was too young to feel that way.  About anything.

It was just a speech after all. Just words. With passion and humility and hope.  The "skinny kid with the funny name" had my attention.  Now I crossed my fingers for there to be at least a pound of substance for every ounce of eloquence. I watched, listened. And waited.

I did a lot for Senator Kerry in the lead up to the 2004 election.  I knocked on doors, handed out flyers at a housing project (successfully dodging security that kept trying to kick me out. Fuckers.)  I pounded the phones for him prior to and on election day.  I felt desperate - I did not want my kid's first four years to run parallel with W's second. We all know how that ended.

But the night wasn't a total loss.  The Land of Lincoln had a new US Senator.  I watched.  I listened. And waited.  Five months later I was a new mom. New baby. Same old President.

Four months after that I watched a beautiful American city disappear beneath the storm surge. I watched and listened. They waited. And waited.  Brownie was doin' a heck of a job and Barbara Bush said that the accommodations at the Astrodome were working out "just fine" since most of those Katrina refugees were "under privileged any way." Rick Santorum called for legal action to be taken against those that did not evacuate the 9th Ward.  After the waters receded I waited for the revolution - the overthrow.  Nothing.  But the words probably not in my life time were certainly much louder.

Then it seemed as though what was so improbable was now possible.  At least technically.  On a cold day in February Obama announced his campaign for President.  I distinctly remember a knot in the pit of my stomach and my head swirling with images of Bobby and King, Kennedy and Lincoln. It was going to be a long road to November of 2008.  And it was.

Super Delegates, "3 AM phone calls," Hillary, Wright, Kenya, Ayres, Puma, Palin, and Lehman.  I knocked on three doors for Obama.  I couldn't take one more person looking at their shoes and telling me they had "already decided who they were voting for." I sent Obama more money than I ever had to any other candidate. But I could not pound the pavement this time - it was too personal. I tried to distance myself. It didn't work very well.

Convinced that we would be counting votes for months, I went to sleep rather early on election night. I figured when I awoke at 2 AM (as I normally do) I would be able to see where things stood.  My husband woke me up and said, "Why the hell are you asleep?  Don't you want to watch?"  He walked over to the TV and pointed to Ohio.  It was blue.  So was Florida.  My eyes were not focused but it looked like Virginia was blue too. I honestly don't remember much after that.

So here we are. And like my man VP Joe said, the way only Joe can, Bin Laden is dead and GM is alive. Don't Ask Don't Tell is gone and marriage equality is alive, yet barely breathing its own.  But it's more than that. So much has happened and no, things are not very good for far too many.

We recently learned, or I did at least,  about a "secret meeting" at the Caucus Room. (Christ, what was their second name choice? Not many first dates go on there I'll bet - unless you went to Liberty University and work for the Heritage Foundation of course.)  Fifteen Republicans, including Newt Gingrich, who should himself count as three, met to plot against the President.  His political assassination was mapped on the day of his inauguration.  Think about that. The Republican Party is run by men that not only wanted the President of the United States to fail but they did not have it in them to celebrate the election of the first African American President in our nation's history.  There really are two Americas.  Not the ones who voted for him and those that didn't, but the America that can rejoice in his election regardless of who they voted for and the America that, no matter what, saw his Presidency as a reason to circle the political wagons or stock up on firearms.

We are not living in a post-racial America - I am not really sure what it would mean if we actually were.  Obama's election did not heal any wounds.  I thought it would. I hoped it would.  But it seems to have ripped the scab off our racist past, which isn't very past at all.

I believe in American exceptionalism. But not the Palin jingoistic definition of it, which the media seem to have adopted over these years. We are not better.  We are different.  America really is an experiment. For some it is going very well, for others - not so much.  For many Americans the election of Barack Obama was their "Fredo" moment. They had officially been passed over. They actually had been not only passed over but trampled on  - and not just once but for generations.  But for them as long as an old white guy was in the White House they still felt that their place in line for the brass ring was secure. Whites in the front, everyone else behind.  That all changed in November 2008.  It must have been like the ground shifted beneath their feet.

I am not sure what the "X factor" is though.  What makes one person rejoice in the election of our first African American President and makes another buy a hand gun because of it?  Is it intelligence?  Is it upbringing?  Is it geography? The US Census Bureau recently reported that for the first time there are more minority babies being born than white ones. Like the outcome of the 2008 election - this either makes you proud to be part of this beautifully diverse, exceptional place, or it makes you fear for your position in line.

These days though worrying about your position in line is a little like straightening chairs on the deck of the Titanic.  We are still looming on the edge of a sharp precipice. I am not sure what is going to wipe us out first - the REAL collapse of the global economy or the collapse of the polar ice cap.  If you think they are separate and unrelated events then you are probably too concerned with your place in line.

Obama  masterfully threw the brakes on to stop the car from going off the cliff but now we are sitting there.  Almost frozen - part political barricade, part failure of imagination, part fear.  This is the most important election of my lifetime and I suspect that will be the case every four years until the end of time - perhaps as it should be.

So I find myself again across from my dear friend, with a beer this time. Asking another question.  "Can it happen again? Can we do it again?"  If we can't - we will go over the cliff.  Or maybe we should just be pushed, or jump, and we can start over.


  1. Insightful....I Like

  2. Extremely well written.

  3. As always, right on the mark. Especially notable, the failure to achieve a post-racial America. The scab is off. Big time. .

  4. I'm a 46 year old man with a wife and 2 teens. I felt like something was lost in 2000 election. I voted for Gore, I still feel like he deserved the Presidency, so in my mind the office has already been stolen at least once. I wanted my kids to know the feeling of community that I knew as a kid and I am afraid that time is not on our side.
    On the morning Obama's win was declared, I played some loved music and felt truly hopefull. John Lennon's "Imagine" brought me to tears that morning.
    I can't say I wasn't expecting a backlash, but I wasn't expecting this level of legislative obstruction from other Americans. They believe we are their enemy, so our hands are tied. We have to fight, and we have to win. As one who rejects violence, I do not enjoy fighting, I hate it. But If we are to keep our hard earned democracy, we must somehow find a way to kill hate and fear with love and tolerance. As the world is getting ever more crowded, we need to find better ways to live together peacefully. Sadly, I feel that we are managing to do the opposite

  5. Nicely done. I like being riveted waiting for the next word. Thanks.