Archive for the ‘Obama’ Category

Communion at the Voting Booth

November 4, 2008

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.

“A Greater Place to Live”

August 29, 2008

I write this on the evening of August 28, 2008.

It’s the birthday of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and my late aunt, Josephine.

On this day, forty-five years ago, I was in summer school at the University of Pennsylvania. We were hearing a lot, in the women’s dorm, about this big march on Washington. We watched clips of it on the network news in the TV lounge that night. I remember seeing speeches . . . and Joan Baez singing.

Eight years earlier, on August 28, 1955, I would have been about to enter seventh grade in Chester County, Pennsylvania. But down in Mississippi on that day, a young black boy named Emmett Till–he was about six months older than me– was being beaten to death. I have no memory of that murder.

I’ve informed myself about it since then. I’d like to give you a YouTube link where you can see some images of Mississippi while you listen to  Bob Dylan’s song about Emmett Till. The last line of the song is the title of this post. (For those with slower modems, the printed lyrics are here.) I felt it necessary to look them up and reread them after I turned off the television tonight. After I’d watched tonight’s speech. After Barack Obama spoke.

I write now, and I don’t understand why I’m not dissolved in tears. Is his gaze holding me steady, I wonder? I couldn’t take my eyes from him. Savior? Celebrity? Another Adlai Stevenson, too smart to be elected president? He looked so vulnerable standing out there on that platform. And he looked so clear about who he is and what he means to do.

I’ve never known this country to be so low–not through the cold war, Korea, or the Vietnam War. Not through Watergate. Not even through Watergate. This is the worst. And yet the young people, the young people (or so I call them) who started moveon.org and talkingpointsmemo and so many other of the blogs and Web sites I depend on and who are representing me on my own city council and in my state assembly–how did they get so good?

I have no kids of my own. I don’t know. I’ve heard it said that we hippies blew it. Maybe we did. But it’s beginning to look to me like some of us parented a generation that’s taking charge. Could they have possibly taken us at our word?

“The system’s broken,” we said in the Sixties. “Everything’s got to change.”

That’s what I heard tonight.

Here’s the text.

This is for my cousins, my aunt Josephine’s granddaughters, Jennifer and soon-to-be-born Baby Girl, Susan and year-old Sailor, and Sarah, and their husbands Rob, Giles, and Ben; and for Josephine’s grandson Jonathan and for her two grandkids, Ben and Marisa, who will be voting in the next presidential election.