I wasn’t prepared for what happened to me in the voting booth.
I’d thought it out carefully. I’d vote around 10:30, after the people who worked in offices had had their morning chance. It was a good plan. My polling place is in the lobby of a high-rise housing project in Manhattan. There are about six electoral districts that vote there. My ED had two voting machines. (There was only one for the primary.)
Things looked pretty well organized. First you gave a worker your street address, and she told you which ED you were and what table you had to sign in at. That line was my longest wait–but only ten minutes. I was voter number 388. Spirits were high. One family was there with their children, taking them into the voting booth.
The line for the booths was only a few minutes. My card was collected and the machine was set for me by a fiercely focused African American woman who called me “dear” as she held the curtain for me.
I always forget that I have to cock the machine by throwing the big red lever to the right, so at first I couldn’t get the small toggle by Obama’s name to go down. A moment of panic until I remembered the lever thing.
Click, click, click, click, down the list of candidates, my congresswoman, judges, my state assemblyman–an impressive young man I’m happy is running again.
I stood there for a moment looking at what I had done, looking at the toggles that were turned down beside the names and the Xs in the boxes. I felt two things at once. I felt both deeply centered inside myself and standing outside space and time. It was a moment like no other. I took a long breath and swung the big red lever back to the left.
And then I began to sob. Wracking, shaking sobs welling up from that center I’d been inhabiting, as tears poured from my eyes.
I steadied myself against the lever, as I recall, inhaled, and turned to leave the booth. As I pulled the curtain aside, I met the eyes of the woman who had let me into the booth.
She looked at me. She more than looked at me, she took me in. “Did you do it?” she said. I nodded. She nodded, too.
And the rest of my tears began to flow. Outside the building, in the sun, I leaned against the brick wall and cried some more until I was able to collect myself.
I spent this spring and summer working on Oxford University Press’s Encyclopedia of African American History from 1896 to the Present. (In other words from Plessy v. Ferguson to Mos Def.) I’ve worked on many of OUP’s African American titles in the past ten years. The set is locked down and ready to go to the presses, except for the open sections that an editorial team is waiting to fill in based on what happens today.
I have worked, as I said, on many of these projects, on the biographical dictionaries, on other encyclopedia sets, on the collected works of W. E. B. Du Bois. It’s been a privilege and an honor and so humbling to learn the life stories of so many astounding men and women. But this encyclopedia of events, half of which happened in my lifetime, sunk me deeper and deeper into despair as I absorbed how pervasive and unacknowledged, unseen, and unknown the racism of this country is.
This morning I got to push back at all that. This morning I got to say–despite what I absorbed growing up with de facto segregation in the public schools of Pennsylvania, where the black kids sat in the back row and rode in the back of the bus–No. This is the person who is best for the job. This is the person I want to represent me to the rest of the world.
“Did you do it?” she asked. I nodded.