Monday, November 10, 2008

Once So Maligned

The effects of the election are still bubbling up in my mind, and have colored my perception of life as it pulses around me. As I meet with students from all over the world - Russia, Bulgaria, Cote d'Ivoire - I feel better about being an American. We have interesting conversations about politics instead of covering the subject at hand. One student said, "They are treating Obama as a God. But he is just a man. Nobody can clean up that mess quickly." So true. But in my mind, he isn't a God. He's a skilled, competent campaigner, and a man who will make mistakes, as all men do. But he is also a historic figure, a powerful symbol, not just of "hope" but of the much more important dream of self actualization for all people who have ever felt they were powerless because of something they could not control, such as the color of their skin, or the circumstances of their birth.

As I walked home this morning from guiding some new Canadian friends to the taxi stand, I passed a restaurant that had taken all of the French newspaper coverage of the election and taped each page to the inside of their windows. I could walk along the sidewalk and gaze in at huge headlines and photos of Obama, his wife, their children. There were pictures of people celebrating all over France. That's right, French people. Last night at dinner, there was a short lull in the conversation, and the two lovely ladies whom I had just met a few hours earlier after watching their beautiful performance on stage, picked up their wine glasses and said, "Can we just say this now...Cheers to Obama." We clinked our glasses and smiled as we talked about our mutual relief at the imminent end of the reign of terror. There was nothing to fear, it turns out, but that smirky little enfant terrible and his skulking dark lord Cheney.

But one of the events of election night has remained in my mind, nudging me for attention. I was alone on election night. I had been nervous with expectation for days. Tuesday morning dawned here in Paris, and I knew that Americans were still tucked into their beds. I would have to wait until 4:30 pm, when finally Los Angeles awakened at 7:30 am and started voting. I had my Mac set up with my RSS news feed updating constantly, then my browser windows with the Google electoral map, MSNBC live TV coverage, CNN and the Huffington Post.

I had Twhirl open and heard the little bell each time someone twittered some news about the election. I was watching the incredible organizational skills of the No On Prop 8 team in San Francisco and Los Angeles. As soon as anyone saw any Yes On Prop 8 signs, they twittered the location and there was a general call from HQ to get people out to that location with No On Prop 8 signs. They worked their asses off and still lost, which really broke my heart. I was also following several websites that were tracking and responding to voter suppression stories. I was so worried that there wouldn't be enough of us to overcome Rovian dirty tricks, and the neocons would steal the election one more time.

Then I fell asleep! It was 3 or 4 in the morning my time, and I couldn't stay awake. My cat woke me up at 8 and for the first time, I wasn't grumpy with her when she stood purring on my chest and daintily plucked my lip with one claw. Darling thing. And by then, Obama's win had been announced. I was awed and felt all quiet inside. Then on MSNBC, I watched Juan Williams speak. There he was, a black man in an expensive suit, behaving his damn self. Of all things. He was the consummate professional journalist. But then, in the midst of a measured dialogue, he said the word "maligned," and it was just afterwards that I heard his voice break. It was that one word that broke the façade that he wore, the same one we all wear, to cover up our humanity. Here's what he said (full text is here):

This is truly an incredible moment of American history. I can't think of another country in the world where you could have a significant minority that was once so maligned and so oppressed finally have one of its sons rise to this level. This is ah...

There is a wound in our hearts. We put superman bandages on it, in hopes that we can grow a new fragile skin over the top of it. But it festers, even with our ministrations. We try to ignore it as we dress ourselves up, and go out and meet the world. We put on a smile of confidence and worth, and we don't allow ourselves to entertain any doubts. There's a dull, almost imperceptible pain from our collective wound. Even if we are people who, by circumstances of our birth, have never known prejudice, some of us have been abused in other ways that create similar scars. Or we carry the wound in our genes, from the pain passed down by our parents or grandparents. Nobody gets away scott free. We, or someone before us, or someone we have helped along the way, were "once so maligned."

Juan Williams didn't crack until he pulled the bandaid off and let some air hit that wound. One word became the key that unlocked Pandora's box. It was then that his costume fell away. All he had done, all he had achieved, all the symbols he wore, became unimportant for a few seconds. And I felt his humanity. It touched my own. THIS is the power of Obama's win. It isn't about one guy. It isn't just about black people. It's about all of us, with our festering wounds, being one. It's about prevailing, when we were once so maligned. And no matter what Obama accomplishes, there is no turning back. This win can never be taken away from us, and the wound is absolutely on the mend.

BY THE WAY: I'm just a middle class, middle-aged, white girl, born in the Philadelphia burbs. I went to a private Catholic girls school in wealthy Merion, Pennsylvania. There was one black girl in the whole school. I still remember her name: Winnie. And Winnie's father dropped her off and picked her up at school every day in the limo that he drove for a living. The only other time I ever saw black people was when I'd lie to my mother and take off with my friends to 69th street in Philly, so we could smoke cigarettes and wear our contraband hippie clothes and hang out in the record store. I can't pretend to know what it feels like to be black in America. But this post, entitled The Happening, is an insightful, beautifully written chronology of election night in New York City, written by LOWERMANHATTANITE in the Group News Blog. I urge you to hop on over there and read it. It's a story about regular life, and some wounds healing, and I thoroughly enjoyed being a fly on the wall.

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