In honor of this upcoming historic – and dysfunctional election – I thought it might be fun to take a look back at the other historic election in 2008. Also, known as the year I did not vote for the first Black president.
But trust me: it’s a good story…
Like many armchair observers of politics, I first became aware of Barack Obama at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. I wasn’t there, but I saw it on television. I watched the 24-hour news pundits gush and drooled over the young senator from Illinois. They called him a rising star in the party. They said he was articulate, smart and clever. And Black. They kept emphasizing his Blackness. The night of the convention, those talking heads looked into the camera and promised the viewing audience, a speech that would break new ground in politics.
I waited with baited breath for Obama to speech and be groundbreaking, I expected him to talk about systematic racism or how it intersected with poverty. I expected him to call out the injustices of the Patriot Act and the domestic surveillance program. I expected him to say something beyond talking points created from focus groups and Washington insiders. Then I watch him give his speech.
It left me feeling less than inspired.
More accurately, “safe,” was the word I used to describe his speech to a room full of blue haired women and men at a political chat and chew event in Chestnut Hill. I was there in attendance as a reporter for two local weeklies. But I spoke as the only Black person in the room.
Normally I don’t talk much out of respect for the profession. But the blue hairs kept asking me about what African Americans thought about the Senator. I didn’t want to be rude. But I didn’t want to feel like a representative of Black people everywhere either.
“Well, I can’t tell you what Black people all think. But to be honest, EYE wasn’t impressed. In terms of passion and the issues that Black people care about, I thought the Rev. Al Sharpton’s speech was better,” I said, rather confidentially.
The blue hairs got silent. Then things got really awkward.
A woman in a long broom skirt cleared her throat and then said very politely, “well, that’s interesting. I asked my neighbor who is also Blaaack and she told me, Barack made her cry. What do you say about her experience?”
I got agitated. How could she expect me to argue with a person who wasn’t there? “Well, I’m just giving you my opinion because you asked.” My tone dripped with sarcasm and I’m certain my facial expressions did too.
The room collectively grinned and nodded before a blue haired man thanked me for my input. And then, I was invisible again.
I didn’t understand. Out of all of the White folks on this planet, I thought for sure it would be the room full of old anti-war activists, socialists, communists and hippies who could relate.
Granted, they were from Chestnut Hill, a wealthy and affluent neighborhood Northwest of Center City Philadelphia. But they were also an eclectic bunch who wore Birkenstocks and clothing made out of recycled hemp. The type of folks who not only felt very strongly about George Bush Jr. designation as a war criminal, but also had a deep disdain for the two-party system in general. And when not chatting politics and chewing on cream cheese danishes, most of them could be found outside the local co-op or post office, petitioning and protesting against military spending.
Out of all the White people on earth, surely they should have understood.
But they couldn’t relate.
They loved Barack Obama. They knew a Black person who cried over Obama.
And as such, I had to be an anomaly.
Maybe they were right?
Fatimah would not stop talking about Barack Obama, no matter how many times I told her I wasn’t a fan.
“Well I think you give him another chance,” she said as she pulled the freshly printed duplicates from the copier and carried them back to her desk.
Fatimah was a grandmother but nothing about her moved old. She not only maintained a very active social calendar but she also worked part time job as executive director of Mt. Airy’s neighborhood association. I also worked part time at the neighborhood association. I was a community organizer. And technically Fatimah was my boss. However she never liked to refer to herself as that. And she never liked to tell me what to do. She said that she had confidence in me and thought I was sincere in my work. And just as long as I turned in a monthly reports on time and performed my office hours as scheduled, she was cool.
I liked Fatimah, which is why I didn’t mind too much when she kept insisting I give Obama a chance.
“Maybe you should come volunteer with me for one of his exploratory committees,” she said, as she folded one of the duplicates in half and stuffed it into an envelope. “They are holding a fundraiser in Philly. I volunteer and I’m telling you girl, there are lots of other young people excited about Barack Obama and politics in general – just like you – you might want to hear from them.”
I sat across the large conference table from Fatimah, sealing and putting labels on a stack of envelopes she had already stuffed. Everything she said sounded nice, but I had my doubts.Community organizing had been no picnic. There were lies, half-truths, misgivings and secret agendas.There were egos and personal spats, which often got in the way of the actual work. Folks were in need of things. And a lot of times, it was the government bureaucracy that proved to be their biggest obstacles.
I struggled a lot with my role as a liaison between all of that. And I could not understand why anyone would who also cared about the people’s interest would want any part of it.
I told her that.
She said she understood. But Fatimah had been trying to sell me on Obama ever since she read his autobiography. She admired this man dearly and made no qualms about singing his praises as if she knew him personally.
“I’m telling you, Charing you will fit right in. These young people are bright, passionate and motivated – just like you. And they are all there working together because they believe in change. Just give him a chance. You’ll see,” she said.
Perhaps Fatimah was right: maybe, I was being too hard on Obama. It wouldn’t be the first time I had been accused of being too “spirited” for my own good. At times, I felt the same way too. So against my own reservations, I hopped on the Southbound Broad Street Line train and headed downtown to give the then-young senator from Illinois that second chance.
The exploratory committee was indeed young and motivated, just like Fatimah said. But it was also apparent, most of their true passions revolved around jockeying for campaign and other jobs in the political sphere. Some of the volunteers were there to work. But many of the other volunteers only talked about who might be lucky enough to be plucked from the local offices to work on to the national campaign teams. According to the talk, if any of them had a shot it was Dave.
Dave was a polished young black man, who unceremoniously for his age, wore really nice tailored suits. He was one of the lead organizers of the Obama election fundraising steering committee and had experience managing several local political campaigns under his spiffy-looking leather belt. He was also very enthused about the prospects of more gainful employment.
“Watch I’m telling y’all, I just can’t see them not picking me. I mean, who else they gonna choose,” he said as he dusted imaginary dust off of his shoulder.
His cockiness was obnoxious, however no one doubted the certainty of his words. I, however, was never impressed by the polished types. Okay that is not entirely true: there is nothing more appealing than a well greased Black man in a well-tailored suit. But generally speaking, there is nothing less trustworthy than a well-greased Black politicians in suit. Now granted, not all black politicians are bad – just a bunch of them. And in my line of public service work, I had met many of the types before. They show up in the community around election times, both greased and polished, pandering empty promises of unity and justice. They showed up in the community, working folks up into a tizzy over whatever controversy happens to be of the hour – whether it be about the sorry state of public schools or the most recent shocking gun murder of a kid. They come naming names, pointing out faults and assigning blame: it’s the current administration; it’s the police; it’s the lack of funding; it’s the community inactivity, which is all to blame. Just like superheroes, they swoop in, march with the people, rally with the people and promise change to the people. And after they are done assigning blame, giving directives, making promises and collecting votes, those politicians in nice tailored suits disappeared into thin air until the next election period. A truly messy and irrelevant bunch they are. It would be mildly entertaining if not for how frustratingly disruptive it all had been to my job.
The community organizer. A person charged with putting into place all the directives and campaign promises that these phonies in tailor suits told the people they would do. And we were expected to do it it all without a budget or support from the politicians in nice suits, who made the promises in the first place. Obama had been a community organizer. But he turned into well-greased black politician in a very nice suit too. I wasn’t certain I could trust him. And I was certain I couldn’t trust Dave’s shiny ass neither.
But somehow, I ended up on a canvassing team with him and Brenda, a white girl from the national committee, who was rumored to have been Obama’s personal paralegal at his former law office. This made her big shit around the campaign office. She was there to help push the young attendance for the upcoming Obama fundraising. And it was actually her idea to go the canvassing down South Street, where all the bars and lounges were. I objected and suggested Broad & Olney, which was heavily black and working class, as an alternative. I thought it would give the campaign an opportunity to listen and relate to his campaign.
But Brenda had her heart set on South Street. “The campaign really wants us to focus on raising awareness with young people. And everybody I talked to says South Street is were you’re supposed to go,” she noted.
That was true, however most “young people” hanging out along South Street typically weren’t interested in talking politics. The campaign literature we offered was immediately tossed into the nearest trash receptacle, or onto the ground. And the only folks willing to listen to our spiel were already on their third or fourth happy hour.
We’d say, “Support Senator Barack Obama’s fundraising campaign for president of the United States by buying this ticket.”
And they would say, “O-who? What the fuck is an Obama? What’s wrong with that nigga’s name?”
And then we’d say, “He is a democrat senator from Illinois, he is young and full of promising hope.”
And then they would stare at us blankly.
And then out of frustration we’d say, “he’s Black.”
And then their eyes would lower into slits of suspicion, before concluding, “A Black president? What? Nawh, get the fuck outta here. Ain’t nobody votin’ for no nigga named Obama.”
We might as well been Jehovah Witnesses passing out tracks. But our lack of actual connecting with potential voters didn’t seem to bother Dave or Brenda, who wanted us to keep canvassing. Meanwhile, the two of them had dipped out on us around 5th and South streets. They said they were going to stop by one of the lounges to do some voter outreach. They were last seen dancing to “Fergalicious” with two cocktails in their hands.
Surprisingly, none of our drunk friends came to see Obama speak. In fact the only young people, who came to the fundraiser were those who actually volunteered for the steering committee.
I spent most of fundraiser standing in the corner, eating stale cheese from the complimentary party trays and half-listening to Obama’ speak about how there’s no red and blue America, but the United States of America. I was on my fourth slice of Sharp Cheddar when Dave floated into the room. He found the nearest circle of suits and instantly started bragging about his personal meeting with the soon-to-be-president. The other enchanted volunteers hovered around him and interrogated him for more details of their meeting.
“I don’t know what else to say, but he is real cool and all. Oh and he said he foresees a bright future ahead of me. And you know what that means?” he asked rhetorically, grinning like it was him eating cheese. Dave gave the nearest random dude in a suit a brotherly hand slap.
I rolled my eyes and grumbled to myself, “It means you’re a douche and this Obama guy might have some vision problems..”
Only a couple of short months after volunteering for the former’s community organizer’s exploratory committee, Obama officially announced his candidacy. And a few months after that, he was polling neck and neck with the party favorite Hilary Clinton. And now everyone – drunk and sober – had an interest in talking about politics.
“Isn’t this exciting Charing. We could be on the verge of the first Black president,” said Lauren, a honey colored brown skinned woman I had known from the neighborhood.
We ran into each other at the local coffee shop and shared small talk over two orders of hot steaming liquids in styrofoam cups. Today she wore a navy blue Obama t-shirt. Six months prior, she was fawning over the idea of our first woman president. I bit my tongue and smiled nicely. Even after all that volunteering on his exploratory committee, I still hadn’t learned anything particularly exciting about Obama. To me, he sounded like every other politician in a nice suit. Yet Lauren kept on using words like: “refreshing” and “young” and “articulate” and “change-maker” to describe him.
And l kept nodding…
Lauren was part of the new wave of politically engaged Black folks making moves in the city. They called themselves progressives. And they weren’t anything like the brash, hard drinking, street fighting, big belly bureaucrats of the old entrenched Black guard.
Instead, these progressives were well educated, well-mannered professionals in excellent physical condition. If they drank, it was really nice wines or artisan beers – and only just to compliment the wonderful locally-made Brie purchased from the co-op. They were usually transplants from New York or New Jersey and felt themselves culturally superior to the average Philadelphian. They also believed in recycling, Whole Foods and organics vegetables. However they weren’t about to trade in their SUVs, Birken bags and other status-symbols for bicycles and hemp clothing. Nope, that shit was for dirty white, tree-hugging hippies.
The Black progressives were instead about social justice – within limit to personal responsibility. They believed that racism existed and was a major barrier to progress. And they were very keen on recognizing it in their own social circles. However they also believed that poor blacks were affected from poor choices rather than the effects of racial injustice and inequality. Although, left leaning, these progressives were dismissed by the old Black guard as being too elitist, or “bougie” to champion the interest of the working class. And they were too dismissed by the white tree hugging segment of the left for their embrace of school privatization through charter schools, family values and other conservative calling cards. Politically speaking, they had little clout in the city. But they were optimistic.
“I’m telling you, Senator Obama is bringing hope for the progressives of the city. And when he is elected, things are really going to change around here. You’ll see,” she said.
I continued to politely nod, sip tea and listen to Lauren sings Obama’s praises for several minutes more, before bidding her adieu. She was very optimistic and certain of Obama’s capabilities. I, on the other hand, was still not impressed.
Obama had largely been silent on about the Jena Six, a group of Black Louisiana students charged with beating a white schoolmate. Not long after that, three of the five plainclothes New York City police involved in the massacred of 26-year-old Sean Bell were found not guilty of manslaughter, and other charges. Despite not being of no surprise to any black person with roots in America, the mere nerve of our criminal just-us system letting cops walk-free still hit at the gut of even the most politically uninvolved Black person. There were marches, protests and editorials from civic leaders, denouncing both the verdict and the state of New York. There were calls for the Justice Department to federally investigate and petitions to our political leadership to do something meaningful
However when asked about the incident, Obama said, “We’re a nation of laws, so we respect the verdict that came down.”
I winced when I read those words in the newspaper. This was also the same nation of laws, which denied women their right to vote and which made it legal to enslave Blacks for hundreds of years. Therefore, just because something is a law, doesn’t mean it is just. And if a law ain’t right, it is up to the people to change it.
I mean, isn’t that what he was suppose to be running on? Change?
And that’s exactly what I told Tanisha, the co-host of Happy Hump Day Online Radio Show. I was still holding the styrofoam cup of tea in my hand I had gotten from the coffee shop up the block. She and my boyfriend Glenn had invited me to the online radio station – then a converted top floor in rowhouse in Germantown – to talk politics. Normally Glenn did not like my politics; he thought them too intense and militant. He didn’t get them. And he didn’t like how upset I got when he told me, he didn’t get them. However, he also thought that my intensely militant politics would make good radio fodder. I obliged because I kind of liked him at the time.
“…Y’all didn’t even know who he was until he showed up on television and surprise, he’s a Black man. And even still, the majority of you didn’t even think he could win because, surprise again, he’s a Black man,” I said loudly into the microphone. Glenn cringed and pulled the headphones away from his ears.
“Well, we have to give him a chance. I mean, of course he is not going to be able to say anything about the Sean Bell thing because he has to be cool for the election. I mean, that’s just good stray-ta-geee…,” Tanisha said, stretching out the last word until sung. That was the universal sigh of a black woman rolling her own eyes inward at you.
I took the hint and shot back with my own tune. “Waa-eell, if folks would get their heads out of their asses – and stop being caught up with the fact that he is Black – we might see that since the start of his campaign, he has run, dodged and hopscotched over every single issues related to Black folks – without a wink or a nod. I mean, if this is a stray-ta-geee, I highly doubt that it is for our benefit.”
Normally, Tanisha and I got along. However that day, I was not there for her callowness. Obama fever had officially taken over the community. And it was impossible to have a real conversation with anyone about real political issues -and his stances on them – without it it delving into the accusation that I wasn’t giving Obama a chance. Some people even accused me of being a black racist or a self-hating Negro, which I couldn’t understand at all.
I mean, I’m a Black woman who has lived, worked and played in mostly Black neighborhoods my entire life. And we had black mayors and governors and congressman and senators before and none of them have done shit. This shouldn’t have been news to anyone. And even if he was well-meaning, the nature of the system, which structurally is designed to work against the interest of Black people, wouldn’t allow for Obama to institute any real change.
Black people know this. I thought Black people knew this.
Hell we have traveled down this road many times before with the electoral process and, in particular, it’s two party-system. So why do we continue to invest so heavily in its’ outcome?
“Waa-eell, not everybody is trying to wave the black power fist around. Some of us are normal,” she said, mockingly into the microphone.
Glenn snickered. I side-eyed the fuck out of him. He then pulled his smile back into a much more respectful look. Now I’m pissed.
“Well maybe if our folks weren’t cowardly trying to lick the boots of White folks so much, and actually had a little self-respect and pride in themselves, than it wouldn’t be a need for folks like me to wave Black fist around,” I said in the same mocking tone she had previously used against me.
Tanisha’s neck began to move in a slow and deliberate snake-like formation, “Well, then who you gonna vote for them since you got a problem with Obama? I GUESS a Republican. Ha-Ha, you a Black republican? Don’t sound like something Malcolm X would do,” she said chuckling into the mic.
She winked at me to let me know not to take it personally, but to also take it personally. Purely subconsciously, my neck started moving also.
“First off, Malcolm said the ballot or the bullet; not the Republicans or the Democrats. So unlike you other water-hauling, foot-shuffling, house Negros walking around here scared to piss off the White man, some of us more liberated Black folks already know we don’t have to vote for no-bod-dee…”
She called me a sell-out. I called her a lost sheep. She slammed her hand on the console and grunted. I stomped my foot on the ground and flared my nostrils. We were a foreign policy issue away from a full-blown fist fight. That’s when Glenn stepped in.
“Okay ladies Ding, Ding, Ding, back to your respective corners,” he said, using that obnoxious radio voice amateurs use when they are trying to sound like they belong on radio. “Perhaps it is time we cut to break just so everyone can cool off a bit?”
Tanisha and I rolled our eyes in agreement, but said nothing.
Glenn smirked. “Um, okay. Well judging by their detracted claws, the ladies have agreed to a break. So we’ll be right back. Stay tuned for more cat fighting -meow- on The Hump Day Show.”
Glenn gave the signal that we were on break and removed his headphones. I thought for sure he was about to mediate the tension between Tanisha and I. After all, I was his girlfriend and she was one of his closest friends. But Glenn had other concerns.
“Twenty-three!” he said as he pointed at the computer console. “Keep it up, you guys…”
Twenty-three was the number of listeners, who had tuned in to hear us scream over each other about Obama. It was one of the highest listened shows in Glenn’s online radio history. I rolled my eyes. It was becoming clear that Glenn would sell me out for anything.
On November 8th 2008, I was working as a clerk at the polls, just like I did every election.
My job was to make sure each voter signed into the official voter registry. Admittedly I was excited to be working on such a historic day: a Black man vs. a White man in a race to determine, who would push the agenda of white supremacy for at least four years. Despite my choices, I was convinced that I would not be voting for Obama. And it appeared I was the only one with these ambitions.
Having a difference of opinion nowadays was completely fruitless. Even the Black politicians and leadership, which started out firmly in Hilary Clinton’s corner, had abandoned ship and joined Team Obama once it became apparent enough White people would vote for him too. Together, the united front held the forth against McCain and Palin and their caravan of racist crazy hillbillies who were determine to not let that nigger with the foreign sounding name into office. The racial tension of the election made it damn near impossible to have a normal conversation with just about anyone. And in Obama Anno Domini, every Negro with access to CNN and the Philly Inquirer suddenly became James Carville. Even the most bucking and shucking Negros were calling black non-Obama supporters, Uncle Toms.
To be honest, I understood it. The economy had tanked, the allure of September 11th had worn off and the realities of two wars where beginning to sink in. People were losing their jobs and their homes. Folks were scared as hell that this America was about to collapse on itself economically. And right now, it was about saving the Union – even if the Union wasn’t working in our best interest.
Not to mention the significance of a Black president in a country that once held Black people as chattel. As I walked the couple of blocks to the polling place from my home in my predominately neighborhood, I took note of the sea of Obama 2008 campaign signs, which littered the front of every single property. Hope and it’s cousin change were everywhere. There was a sense of pride and accomplishment. We had finally made it. Black people were finally part of the American dream.
Even the people at the Chinese store were excited.
I had stopped off at corner store to get a copy of loosies. Pressed against the inside of the bullet proof glass takeout window was a high-gloss photo of the young senator, which looked like it had been torn out of a magazine.
“Obama. Obama!” said the old toothless Asian man as put my loose cigarettes on the bullet proof carousel, closed the bullet proof door and spun it around.
I open the same door, retrieved the cigarettes and gave him a thumbs up. I wasn’t in the mood to debate the friendly immigrant, especially not through five inches of polycarbonate.
Besides, I was tired of hearing,“what are you going to do? Vote Republican?” A republican was a long-shot but also an option. Or I could vote for an Independent candidate, you know, like Cynthia McKinney. All the things considered, including her platform of ending the drug war, getting us immediately out of both Iraq and Afghanistan, closing Guantanamo Bay and making reparations for black slavery a reality, had really resonating with me. And if the talk of change was real, why not really be about change and this time, vote our own interest – a not in the best interest of the Union?
I took the last puff off of my cigarette and tossed it into the street before cutting through a church’s courtyard. A line had already formed outside of the church’s rectory, which that day, also doubled our official polling place. Many of the people waiting in line burst into applause and a chorus of “Obama…Whoot!” as I walked passed them. There were lots of new faces this year; most of them smiling. However some of them were not.
“…Yeah I came early ‘cuz I heard on the news, that they is tryin’ to take away peoples’ votes…” said one brown skinned woman with a gold capped tooth.
She said it as I walked by her and loud enough that I knew this “casual” conversation was meant more for my benefit. Right then and there, I knew I was in for a very long day.
I was seated between the Judge of election and the minority inspector, when the doors finally opened to a boisterous and agitated bunch of voters.
“Nuh-uh, the TeeVee said that the election is s’ppose to start at 7 a.m.; it is 7:05 a.m. Y’all are denying people they rights to vote. I’m calling the city…, said the first voter to the table. She was a brown-skinned woman in a White Obama t-shirt. After she signed her name to the ledger, she slammed the pen down and loudly proclaimed her intentions of filing an official report.
The various voter fraud reports on television and news had definitely done the job of working people up into a frenzy. Folks were threatening us all morning with all kinds of variations of “I wish a nigga WOULD take my vote!” Making matters worse, one of the electric polling machines stopped working 30-minutes into the election, which raised all sorts of conspiracies. Of course, it was us lowly and underpaid poll workers who took the brunt of blame, accusations and abuse. And throughout the day, we were personally visited upon by representatives from the local police department, the city’s election board, the Committee of Seventy voter watchdog group, a state representative and the ward leader, who all interviewed us individually about the various allegations they received claiming voter suppression. The morning was beyond hectic. And whatever possible charm the day could have brought, had been sucked out of me and replaced with straight bitterness and annoyance.
Fortunately by 2 p.m., the long lines of impatient and adamant voters had dissipated. And the only voters there to cast their ballots were nicer, more professional, folks who voted at each and every election. Basically old people.
“Phewsh, it’s a long walk up them stairs,” Mrs. Johnson said as she moseyed up to the sign-in table. “Phewsh, don’t rush baby, take ya’ time. I’m going to have a seat right here, Phewsh, in this chair while you look for my name. Man, those step, Phewsh, phewsh, phewsh. By the way how’s your momma doing?”
I told her Mom was well and passed her the ledger to sign-in. “That’s good, baby,” she said, holding the pen, but not putting it to paper.“ Oh I’m only the 172th voter? That’s it? I thought you would be way busier than that…oh that’s more than we ever had all day? Well yeah then, I bet they did have you running around like crazy. And you know half- these niggas have never voted before – and probably, ain’t gonna vote again. Mmm- hmm, I got to make sure my grandkids come around here to vote.
Did you see my daughter around here yet?…You did?…Oh-oh-oh, you say, you don’t remember seeing her? Well I got to call her. You know I got one of those cellphones and the grandkids programmed it and showed me and all but, ha-ha, you know I don’t know how to use it….Here, I don’t know how to use it, see if can come now…oh, she’s not answering the phone? Alright well, hang up then. Phewsh, them steps took the breathe out of me. How y’all mom doing?…Oh yeah, I asked you that. Well, your brother?…Oh, that’s good. You and your brother have always been good kids. I remember when your brother used to come sit on my front porch and ask if I could spare a sandwich. Man, I looked at him like, ‘boy, I can’t spare a sandwich but you can certainly have one,” Ha-ha!….Oh, you need me to sign…oh the people behind me need to sign in to the registry too or else you would let me sit here all day? Well I guess I better sign this here then…So how’s your mother doing?…Yeah, I asked you about that, huh?…Well, did you get a chance to vote for Obama yet?”
Mrs. Johnson wasn’t the only one certain about who I – and everybody else – was there to vote for. “OBAAAAMMMMAAAA!!!!….,” yelled an old thin brown skinned man in a tan colored Obama ’08 bucket hat as he strolled out of the voting booth.
The short line of voters erupted into applause. As the thin man past the line, he high-fived another man wearing an Obama hat. Most, who came to vote, dressed the part including Obama buttons, scarves, jackets, socks, hats, bracelets, earrings and necklaces, shoe strings and t-shirts.
Lord Jesus, the Obama tees.
There were lots of the official navy blue t-shirts with the official Obama ’08 logo floating around. Those t-shirts came as gifts for either donating and volunteering for the campaign. And then there were the unofficial shirts, which folks got from the African vendors on the Avenue. The unauthorized t-shirts, which featured Obama’s head in the centered of the Mount Rushmore of notable Black People like Martin, Frederick, Marcus and Malcolm – along with some random rich niggas like Michael Jordan, Swiss Beats and Morgan Freeman. Oh lest we forget Harriet Tubman, Oprah or Condoleezza Rice – but never the three women shall meet on the same t-shirt, at the same time. Underneath the collage of historical and rich Black people is a caption written in really fancy and sparkly gold calligraphy, which usually says something like:
Obama ‘o8. The Dream Deferred has been Refinanced
I would put money on the fact that there were a few bootleggers in the ‘hood, who were able to put a down payment on a house, just off of the economic strength of the Obama tees alone. Ms. Daisy, the Judge of Election, had one of those shirts buried in the bottom of her canvass bag.
“And as soon as I leave out of here and drop this election stuff off at the ward, I’m going to put my Obama shirt on and celebrate the first Black president,” she said through a throaty cackle. “Anyway, you might as well vote for Obama now while it’s slow.”
I smiled tightly, partly out of respect for my elders and the other part, to force my mouth shut so I wouldn’t end up violating the first part. But she was right; we had an hour before the after-work voters arrived. And if I was going to make a principled stand, this would be the least busiest time to do so. I signed my own self into the ledger and took the pen with me.
“Gurl, you don’t need that pen to vote for Obama. Leave that out here. It’s our only one,” Ms. Daisy ordered.
“Oh I need it to write-in a candidate’s name,” I offered, shyly.
Ms. Daisy eyeballed me suspiciously.I ignored her curiosity and went into the booth.
I was no stranger to voting, but this was the first time writing-in a candidate’s name. It was more complicated than I thought. First, I couldn’t figure out how to get the write-in box on the electronic voting machine to open. I read the directions posted on the voting machine several times. But after pushing the instructed button, the little glass window refused to open. Out of frustration, I began to fiddle around with the machine until I finally able to pry the window open. With the pen that Ms. Daisy had been heavily monitoring, I wrote in Cynthia McKinney’s name on the slip of paper inside of the open window.
For a brief moment, I felt proud.
Forget Obama; this was my historical moment. I had not only taken a political stand against conformity and the two-party system, but I had also taken a real stand for all the causes, which I thought were in our best interest to support. And in the process, I got to spit in the faces of all those people, who mockingly told me that casting a vote outside of the two-party system would be a vote wasted. And I got my symbolic moment: I not only voted Black but I voted Woman too.
I felt very accomplished and satisfied with myself when I pushed the big green “VOTE” button on the bottom of the voting machine. But nothing happened. So I pushed the button again. And then again. And I pushed it just one more time for posterity.
I groaned loudly, “You got to be fucking with me…”
“You alright in there,” said Ms. Daisy from the other side of the blue curtain. “You been in there a long time.”
I wasn’t alright, but I sure as hell didn’t want to tell her that. I had too fess up though. Eventually they would find out the voting machine wasn’t working and blame me anyway. “Ms. Daisy can you come in here. The machine bro-”
Ms. Daisy peeled back the curtains before I could finish my sentence, “What? Broken? Girl, what did you do…what you mean, nothing? Well, you did something ‘cuz right now, it’s not working.”
“Mm-hmm, Didn’t you tell her that she didn’t need that pen,” Ms. Peaches, who was the minority judge of election, yelled from her seat behind the registration table.
Ms. Daisy turn her head away from me slightly and yelled over her shoulders back to Ms. Peaches, “That’s what I said. She told me she was writing a name in.”
“Writing in a name? All the names are on the ballot. Girl, you ain’t have to write-in nobody name, I swear, these young people – stupid” said Ms. Peaches as got up from her seat and made her way over to the voting machine. They both stare at me, and the voting machine, for a few seconds before Ms. Daisy started pushing buttons frantically.
“Well chile I told you, you didn’t need no pen to write in Obama’s name.”
“I wasn’t writing in Obama’s name,” I whispered through gritted teeth. I was hoping for discretion. But neither Ms. Daisy or Ms. Peaches planned to give me any such honors.
“IF YOU WEREN’T VOTING FOR OBAMA, WHO IN THE HELL WERE YOU VOTING FO-” Ms. Daisy paused.
You could tell that a lightbulb had gone off. And she recognized what she was about to ask me was in clear violation of a bunch of election laws that forbade any discussion about candidates while in the actual voting booth. She softened her tone but still eyeballed me like I was a traitor. “Well…there is nothing we can do. It’s broken. I guess we have to call the election board to tell them that our second machine has broken now.”
Both Ms. Peaches and Ms. Daisy shook their heads and exited from inside the voting booth. I, on the other hand, decided that it was no better time than then to take a dinner break.
I came back 20 minutes later with a full belly and news that the machine was back working again. I didn’t bother to find out if my vote had counted, or if I needed to vote again. Instead, I sat down and resumed my role as election clerk. I thought if I was quiet enough, the old lady gang would leave me alone.
“You see they fixed the machines,” Ms. Peaches said, pointing out the obvious.
“Mm-hmm, as long as I been working here, I have never seen them go down like that before. That’s why I only vote for people on the actual ballot,” Ms. Daisy said.
Ms. Peached nodded in agreement. “You right about that. You know, folks just do too much…”
They continued making shady comments about me the entire night. And maybe they were right. It certainly did feel like an omen. I mean, I push the green button for a platform outside of the two-party system and the got-damn electoral process collapsed. Maybe the kind of change I wanted was just too much to ask at that time?
Later that evening, I went with Glenn to his mother’s home for her first – and last – annual election night watch party. The entire family was there and they were decked out from head-to-toe in Obama paraphernalia. His mother fixed me a paper plate of hot wings, macaroni salad and cornbread. But before she would give it to me, she asked me if I voted. I told her I had voted and she handed me the plate of food. I’m glad she didn’t ask who I voted for or else I might have starved the entire evening.
Two plateful of hot wings later, the talking heads on CNN officially declared Obama our 43rd president. Glenn and his clan hooted and hollered about how far we have come as a people. Meanwhile, I sat there, with a plastic smile on my face doing my best to reciprocal enthusiasm.
“This is Martin’s dream come to life,” Glenn’s mom said tearfully as she wrapped her arms around me.
I hugged her back reluctantly. I wanted to feel emotional with her too about his win, but my head wouldn’t let me. We had been done this road before with politicians and I was certain that nothing was going to change for Black people. In fact, I was certain that times were about to get pretty tough. But I smiled anyway. And I wore that fake smile on my face for twenty minutes more until Glenn decided to run shirtless around his mom’s relatively quiet black upper middle class neighborhood yelling to the heavens, “OBAAAAMMMMMAAAA…”
That’s when I knew it was time to go home.
In the grand scheme of imperialism, President Obama was not the country’s worst president this country has ever had. To be honest, I would argue he was a great statesman. But despite all of the dignity and grace he has brought to the office, I do not regret my decision. Yes, he did his job very well. It just so happens that his job was to preserve the same system of white supremacy, which keeps pretty much the world oppressed.
Interestingly enough, I ended up voting for him in 2012 over Mitt Romney. Even more interesting, I feel no contradictions in that.