This post, entitled “I Am Barack Obama,” shares how the election results have affected another child of immigrants on a very personal level. It’s written by Rev. Dr. Soong-Chan Rah, is a popular and gifted professor at North Park Theological Seminary.
“The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term, but America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you, we as a people will get there.”
– President-elect Barack Obama, November 4, 2008, Chicago, IL
I am simply overwhelmed with emotion and gratitude by the results of the election last night. The depth of my reaction has actually surprised me – although it seems that people, literally all around the world, are also being swept up by the relief, the promise, and the hope of what this historic Presidential election means. I’ve watched some of the CNN analysis, read the news updates, been part of the buzz of excitement still humming here in Chicago – but I think the ramifications of the United States electing its first black President by a huge margin of votes have only just begun to unfold.
I’ve been asked by several people about my experience of election night here in Chicago and it made me realize that I want to remember the details of that journey that made a truly deep impression on me. I went downtown last night after watching much of the electoral map updates with a group of friends on tv at our election party at home. While driving down along the lake toward Grant Park, listening to my “Yes We Can:Voices of Hope” CD with our windows rolled down, we got a call telling us that McCain had officially conceeded in a very gracious and intentional speech. (The next song playing in our car happened to be, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.”) After parking a dozen or so blocks away from the center of the rally, my brother and our friend and I quickly snaked our way through downtown Chicago streets and traffic to try to get as close as we could to the event in time for Obama’s speech. Throngs of people were also out, many due to normal city night life hustle and bustle, and many pulled out into the night just for the election excitement. As we rounded the corner onto Randolph Street, the crowds we had been navigating through gave way to a city street party. We were in the middle of sight more exuberant then New Years Eve – taxis honking, people chanting and yelling on every sidewalk corner and down every street way, songs and drums filling the air, and limos cruising slowly so that people could stand up through the sunroof opening and gleefully wave Obama signs. Friends were texting and calling me as I hurriedly walked along, many of whom had such personal stakes in what was happening that night and who I was so excited to celebrate with. The voices on my phone conveyed the same emotion and excitement as I heard in my own words, and I loved sharing the sounds and atmosphere of the city with them for a moment over our cell connection.
I couldn’t stop grinning as we kept pressing on toward Grant Park, along with thousands of other happy and excited pedestrians. Kids of all ages accompanied parents in the rush to the park, bikes whizzed by carrying laughing and cheering riders, and a man in a wheelchair was helped along through the crowd. Cars routinely stopped on the side of Michigan Avenue with passengers wanting to high-five and cheer along with the sidewalk crowds, while vendors hawked colorful t-shirt designs featuring the new President’s smiling face and buttons saying “Yes We Can” on every corner. Just being there, feeling this pulse of joy and joining thousands of other people who all had the same reaction, was absolutely phenomenal. I couldn’t stop smiling all the way down the “magnificant mile” – even when I got pulled into a (intoxicated) stranger’s photo op on the street so he could point to my Obama/Biden t-shirt to commemorate the moment.
The three of us easily found our way across the bridge just south of the Art Institute and decided to try to get a glimpse of the speech from a nearby jumbo-tron screen instead of heading directly into the center of the Grant Park gathering. As we turned east and entered the gathered masses, music was blaring, people were dancing and smoking, and the warm weather welcomed young and old assembling together under the canopy of fall leaves and bright park lights covering the lawn. We took pictures, marveled at the size of it all, and wondered aloud how Barack and his family must be feeling right now. How do you prepare to accept your role as the next President of the United States? How do you hold the weight and expectations and sheer gratitude of a country – no, a world – who is watching you as the first to pave the path ahead for so many: people of color, children of single moms, those who have had to fight poverty and overcome in the struggle – how can the gravity of this once in a lifetime moment fit into a person’s brain?
After finding a decent view of the screen and learning that our cell phones no longer could get any coverage (due to the massive overuse of the towers, I think), the music on the speakers fell quiet and the screen lit up to show a row of waving flags in the night breeze behind a podium. An announcer began his introduction of Obama and his family, and our crowd erupted into claps and hoots as flags waved and kids got heaved up onto the backs of taller adults. While the sound from the speech was booming around us, we three stood with our arms around each other and I tried to soak in the moment. Behind Obama’s resolute image on the huge screen we were gathered around, the Chicago skyline twinkled and huge letters spelling out “USA” shone from a skyscraper boasting a lit window design. I could barely make out the water fountain columns in Millenium Park behind it all, glowing deep blue and red for the occasion, and could see streets and lawns well-known to Lake Shore Drivers all around us packed with people. In the darkness, surrounded by people with accents from around the world and proud Chicagoans of every creed and color, I watched the nation’s first black President give a stirring speech. At several points during his acceptance speech, I teared up and felt overcome by what was happening all around us. I thought about how I will be able to tell my 7 month old daughter about this night that will forever shape the world that she grows up in. I thought about so many other children who will grow up now thinking that they, too, have a chance at someday being President. I thought of the people who had gone before Obama, the legacy of the Civil Rights movement, the fights for change by community organizers across the nation, the many communities that defined Chicago and Obama’s work here, the churches and ministries that have been and will continue to help point our country and its people toward racial righteousness and pursuing the justice of God. “Yes We Can” – the crowd kept cheering. Last night, yes – we did!
When we returned home late last night, I re-watched the speech (with good sound and a clear view of the screen this time!) on TV and simply wept. I’m still reflecting on why my tears of joy can’t stop flowing…. but that sense of relief, of gratitude, and of pure joy that bubbled up in me as we walked down Michigan Avenue and the weight of the night settled into my bones has not left me. The reality of all that this election means, and the immensity of the task ahead of us as a country, is still fresh in my mind and in my heart. To be clear – I do not think that Barack Obama is a savior, a saint, or the answer to all the ills of a nation situated in difficult times; but I know that he will soon be our nation’s leader and is a humble, strong reconciler in a country whose many diverse voices now see in him their own potential and future. We still have a long way to go, and the struggle for justice and racial equality and opportunity for all will still call to us and demand our attention and our voices. But there is more space carved out for us, more welcoming voices along that walk, and more people joining in the fight it seems, after last night. I have never been more hopeful, after standing in that warm autumn breeze under dancing city lights with thousands of people moved by a vision for the future, that we as a people will get there.
I recently received an advocacy letter from ColorofChange.org that challenged me to speak out on the problemmatic rise of racist behavior as part of the current election cycle. The following is a message that I sent out to friends of various racial backgrounds and political persusians to try to help encourage awareness, dialogue, education, and advocacy. I’ve included several links below as well, including the message from ColorofChange. If you have any questions/comments/or ideas to share about this, please feel free to share. Thanks.
Have you already seen this in the news? The following email details the rise in racist behavior and language occurring at McCain and Palin rallies over the last week or so. I think it’s very important to respond to this issue – not as a political tactic or a way to be pro-democrat (even though yes, I personally plan to vote that way in Nov.), but because no one should cross the line of encouraging or allowing racial slurs, violence or hate speech in the US in the name of politics (or anything else). It’s too dangerous to ignore.
To my knowledge, McCain has started stopping racially-charged comments at certain rallies recently, which I think is commendable. And I also don’t hold his campaign responsible for every individual racist citizen’s response (like the very scary Curious George monkey doll with an Obama sticker wrapped around his head held by an older white man who is laughing!!! – that is in the video in the link below, fyi.) But as we know, racism is systemic and affects everyone in both subtle and direct ways. This is a time that we can directly denounce the behavior – and we can try to let the McCain campaign know that citizens of every racial and political background don’t think racism is ever ok and would support him in stopping comments/behavior like that on the campaign trail. I’d like to think that we can encourage both campaigns – and the American public – to be at their best and to hold each other accountable, even during the charged last few weeks of a national election.
So – speak out! You can learn the basics from this letter that ColorofChange.org sent out, and from several links provided on that page, and then send a pre-written email letter and/or write your own comments. I also think that spreading the word that this is happening and that you don’t agree with it to other family and friends, of all political persuasions and racial backgrounds, is probably just as needed and effective as sending in the letter. We need to share our convictions about issues like hate speech and racism, and all the while make sure to create space for people with varying political preferences – these two things can and should coexist together. We need to talk about issues of race and fear with each other in order to influence and learn from each other. While I know this might feel like its only a politically-charged concern – or if you’re a Republican it might feel like this is motivated only by a potential political gain – I truly think that as Christians we need to stay informed and talk about it so that we can take part in helping speak out about this apart from party politics, and instead out of our commitment to be advocates for justice and to defend the cause of the vulnerable. If you have any thoughts/questions/whatever about this, let me know – Thanks! – Liz