Featured Story: Election

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Before the man said a word I could tell he was in a bad mood. He opened the door with stormclouds on his face, and without giving me the chance to whimper "sorry to bother you," he barked, "the next time you knock on the door like the police are gonna bust in, think about all the people round here that have babies you're waking up!"

I looked at Jeremy, my partner in crime, and tried to find a way out of the situation. In the best of times I don't like pressing my views on people. How were we going to convince this man to vote for Obama when we landed on the wrong foot before saying a word?

"We're apologise sir," Jeremy said, "we didn't realise how hard we had knocked." The truth was, so many people hadn't answered their doors we weren't sure that anyone could hear us use the tiny knockers on all the doors in the apartment complex. By the end of the day we would have knocked on approximately 140 doors and talked to just 15 people. We weren't sure whether to believe so many people were truly out of their apartments on a grey and soggy Saturday afternoon so we had become a little over-enthusiastic trying to get them to answer.

To my surprise, we ended up having the longest conversation of the day with this man. After introducing ourselves as volunteers for the Obama campaign and asking if he had made up his mind who he would vote for in next week's presidential election (he hadn't), we asked what issues were most important to him. His primary concern was health care – the current situation was "ridiculous" – and his wife, a teacher, wanted to know whether Obama planned to repeal the No Child Left Behind Act.

Just over a week later I sat in a bar in the Lower East Side with friends and watched the election results start to roll in. I had decided to treat the night like New Year's by pairing the spectacle with drinks. I figured no matter which way the results turned out, I'd be happier if I wasn't sober. I had watched the Palin/Biden debates in the same bar, and like that prior evening the crowd was boisterous and vocal.

We watched CNN roll out an increasingly ridiculous array of computer generated effects to illustrate the vote counts, capped with the crowning achievement of using an actual hologram to project a commentator into the news studio. In between trying to determine how much better informed I felt by hearing news from a live Princess Leia, as opposed to the more pedestrian norm of a pundit's face on a giant plasma screen, I kept track of which way states were swaying. It was certainly interesting to see CNN predict state outcomes after only the first 2,000 votes had been counted. And I found the more I drank, the less I cared how statistically insignificant a 0% vote sample was.

The crowd was so loud by the time the election was called for Obama that I had no idea what state had first handed him the victory. Virginia? Pennsylvania? I couldn't tell. All I knew was that a spontaneous cheer went up. People were hooting, clapping, pounding the tables. The bar passed out glasses of free champagne and everyone toasted.

Soon after, we spilled out onto the street and made our way to another bar. We were some distance from the real party in the streets up in Harlem, but nevertheless celebration was in the air everywhere. By the time Obama gave his acceptance speech I was another couple drinks down, which made it that much harder to believe he was really there, that he actually won the election.

Where did this ecstatic feeling come from? It's not because I expect Obama to make a lot of progress with this country's problems. I have very modest hopes for what may come of his administration. The simple and sad truth is that 8 years of one of the worst U.S. leaders of all time has lowered my expectations to the point where I am excited by the prospect of an intelligent person in the White House. Someone who seems to grasp how the world works in reality. The fact that he showed one of the most nuanced understandings of the issue of race in this country is icing on the cake.

And it is that issue of race which I have been thinking about most in the days since the election. I voted for Obama because I thought he was the best candidate for the job, and his physical appearance had nothing to do with that opinion. Now that he is the president-elect, however, I have let myself think about the colour of his skin and am moved by what has happened. There is a song by Nina Simone I've been listening to a lot recently.

Nina Simone recorded the song in a performance she gave 3 days after Martin Luther King was assassinated. Her emotion shows through in only a few places in the song, but it is enough to glimpse just how devastating the period after his death must have been.

"Will my country stand or fall?
Is it too late for us all?
And did Martin Luther King just die in vain?"

Many interviews with potential voters before the election showed just how far from resolved the problem of racism in America is. The New York Times has been covering reactions to the election from all over the country and the world. In one clip from a school in Brooklyn, a black child is asked what he thinks of Obama's election. He replies, "since a black man became president, then other people that would usually think that black people would become something bad or anything else like that, we can become presidents or whatever we want to." This child feeling like people look at him as a problem is one of the sad realities of life in the U.S. An article in the New York Times on Sunday showed the attitudes black people have to grow up dealing with. In response to Obama's success, one woman interviewed commented, "I think there are going to be outbreaks from blacks. From where I’m from, this is going to give them the right to be more aggressive."

As sad as it is to hear those comments, I am still blown away by the person we have elected to be our future president. If nothing else, it will hopefully spark more progress on the problem of racism, and recognition of the unhealed wounds of America's roots.

On that note, I've been following up Nina Simone's song with this more uplifting Marvin Gaye-sampling track by Brother Ali.

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