‘Last night for the first time in my life, I saw people gathered to say unequivocally that they finally feel at home in this country.’
By Makani Themba-Nixon / The Rag Blog / November 8, 2008
I’ve always wanted to love this country. To feel that unalterable sense of home that no matter what it does, it belongs to me. I know people from Chile, Palestine, Rwanda, for example, who have literally lost everything – their parents and siblings murdered, their homes burned to the ground. Still, they fight for their homeland with a sense of ownership, a sense of deep connection that separates the place from the people who run it.
As a Black woman, I have always envied this sense of home-land. Although I changed my name among other things to try to make real my sense of Africa as my imagined home, I, like many others in this country, have long felt homeless in this respect.
Last night [election night, Nov. 4, 2008], for the first time in my life, I saw people gathered to say unequivocally that they finally feel at home in this country. I walked the streets of this nation’s capital built by enslaved Africans, until nearly dawn. Spontaneous gatherings were sprouting everywhere. I stood in the crush of thousands at the White House as people sang, “Na Na Na Na, Na Na Na Na. Hey, hey, hey. Goodbye…” They chanted, “Whose House? Our House”! The crowd flowed down Pennsylvania Avenue all the way to 18th Street. And then I saw another first: the White House turned off every light – in the house and on the grounds. It was the physical manifestation of what they’ve done for the last eight years: sit in the dark and pretend we weren’t there.
In Adams Morgan, a lively queer group brought some extra flava by leading 18th Street in the chant, “Obama For Yo Mama!” U Street was straight out of control. The Ethiopian clubs were bumping , cars were parked blasting and there converged in the middle of the street a multinational dance off that repped much of East and West Africa, drunk frat boys and old school hip hop of all stripes. It felt like being in South Africa after Mandela was elected or in Venezuela after Chavez. It felt like anywhere but the US after an election.
My mother-in-law called crying, thanking God she got to live to see this day. Downtown DC was full of smiling, crying people so full of joy and, yes, hope, that they would spontaneously talk to you; bursting with analysis. He whipped that fool like he stole something. What! Obama, baby!
I’m not sure but I don’t think many offices got cleaned last night.
At the National Council of Negro Women, the National Coalition for Black Civic Participation had an old school party where people cried and danced and hugged each other and, yes, did the electric slide to freedom.
Four hundred people stood in line at 4 a.m. in Woodbridge, VA determined to vote in a state that does not require employers to allow employees paid time off for voting. I spoke to a waitress in Alexandria who had just found out she had a shift change and was heartbroken. She would miss her first chance to vote after becoming a citizen last year.
There was the family from Culpepper, VA including a 62 year old grandmother and three grandchildren in their twenties who were voting for the first time; the day laborers who moved from organizing around their local conditions to organizing around national elections in less than a year. These brothers, members of Tenant Workers United, spent Election Day knocking on doors in the rain because they had come to see the connection between their lives and the elections. There are so many stories. I am too full to do them justice. They are each their own miracle.
About the Election Results
Stories like these belied the neat red-blue dichotomy that so dominated network news. First, a closer look revealed that the turnout was much more nuanced and often more raced. The New York Times did a better job of capturing this (click on county leaders view) with a map of county by county results. It’s a much “bluer” world than Fox and most pundits are ready to embrace. Alabama Black belt counties gave Obama most of his 38%. It was the big counties with sizable white populations that put McCain over the top. Obama won Virginia thanks to the north, Richmond, Roanoke, the Hampton Roads counties and the county where Virginia Tech is located. The rest of the state – even in coal country where Bush policies have hit the hardest – were still solidly for McCain. Ohio, Missouri and North Carolina told a similar story: People of color plus young whites were the key.
If anyone doubts that racism is alive and well in American politics, the fact that more than 55 million people voted for McCain in spite of his negative, racist and politically vacuous campaign; his lack of charisma and terrible media performance; his scary choice of running mate and inconsistent positions on virtually every issue of importance; and in spite of his obvious ineptitude for the bread and butter issues facing the majority of electorate should be proof enough. Being white and male gave him the handicap (in golf terms) that got him 50 million plus votes ‘just because.”
Sure, there was vote flipping, vote stealing and our biased voting system that held Obama back from an even more impressive win. I mean what kind of system won’t mandate time off to vote or allow Ted Stevens (R-AK) to run for Senate as a convicted felon but not allow our ex-offenders to vote who have done their time.
Yet, all that notwithstanding, I was struck by the gap between the support for Obama and for the democratic candidate for Senate in a number of states. It speaks volumes about the “new” and “old” electorate. In states like Iowa, Missouri, Michigan and Virginia, the senate Democratic candidate got more votes than Obama where Obama won.
In South Dakota and West Virginia, the senate races were a rout with Democrats garnering nearly two thirds of the vote – and Obama lost the state. This gap was mostly ignored by the pundits as they tried to play up the “Gee whiz, this means white people are not racist” angle that dominated much of the commentary.
Then there was the other part of the equation. In a few states, like Mississippi, the senate candidate did not do as well as Obama. Yup, Mississippi. And you know the reason why: the Black vote. There was an unprecedented turn out of Black people – especially in the south – that forced McCain to spend money in states that have historically been a Republican stronghold. Latinos and other people of color turned out strong for Obama as well. And there was finally some funded infrastructure for voter protection. Long time warriors like the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, Lawyers’ Committee, NAACP and Advancement Project were joined, for the first time, by the Obama campaign, which organized voter protection teams in every state where funny business was expected. It was another historic first: a Democratic candidate that did not participate in the long time “gentlemen’s agreement” between the parties to look the other way on voter suppression. An agreement the Clintons embraced during the primary season as they sought to narrow the playing field to their advantage. Here was a Democratic candidate actually complaining about turnout…
Maybe now, as we examine the turnout demographic in places like North Carolina, Indiana, New Mexico, Colorado and more, we can finally lay to rest this unsubstantiated worship of the soccer mom/NASCAR dad as the necessary foundation for progressive victory. No more “blueprints” that put money in every place but urban centers. No more colored people as after thoughts. No more Joe Six Pack or Joe the Plumber as the archetypal American story. Maybe we can face the fact that it was Jose and Shanequa and Mohammed who made the difference this season. A fact you won’t hear that from most pundits – even in The Nation.
Obama was the first major party nominee to implement a full blown street operation that valued our communities’ vote and in doing so, bucked a century old tradition of paying “leaders” to “deliver” us. It was the reliance on this system that helped derail the Clintons’ bid to recapture the White House. The Clintons thought they had a lock on the Black vote because they thought these “leaders” had a lock on “their” people. After all, that’s what they had been selling for decades. But in this season, they were straight busted. This is perhaps the most significant impact of the Obama campaign on Black political terrain: the way it shattered power relations between the “old heads” of the civil rights generation and a new, younger generation of Black leadership.
Obama’s election is, in fact, the latest milestone in what can only be understood as a significant generational change in Black national leadership. Between the White House, the NAACP and the Black Leadership Forum to name just a few key institutions, these new leaders are moving away from much of the politics (though not the important principles) of the civil rights leadership and embracing more technical approaches to addressing the challenges at hand. The promise is better run, more politically savvy institutions, and that can only be a good thing.
However, these institutions, even with their smart, savvy leadership, do not have the capacity to effectively engage the millions of new Black activists post election. There is simply not enough intentional, progressive institutional building in African American communities – especially at the local level to effectively hold this work. Hopefully, there is finally the space for substantive conversations about work and investments in this area – and organic community organizing and civic infrastructure in communities of color more broadly – which is long overdue.
I’m not sure but clearly the eagerness of so many to translate their new found activism and burgeoning political literacy into local action opens up new opportunities. I literally heard hundreds of people say to me, ‘This is not about Obama. He is just an agent… Now, we have to take the responsibility to get involved where we are…’
And that’s what keeps me up at night. How do we keep from blowing this opportunity? What do we need to let go of and embrace in order to really see our way ahead?
I have friends who are deeply consternated by the elections. They are afraid of how hard it will be to move an agenda because of the passion that people feel about Obama’s candidacy. In fact, just by being Black, an Obama presidency has special implications for our work. On one hand, there is greater access and likelihood he will embrace some key issues. On the other hand, his “big tent” paradigm creates greater pressure to distance himself from many progressive issues including avoiding an attack against Iran. And then there’s that “post racial” thing.
Our work will be even harder, they say, because it will be difficult to hold him accountable. Sure, that’s true but how well did we hold Bush accountable? And is accountability the end game or is it power to govern, to move our agendas? And what is the strategic relationship between the two?
If it’s the latter, we might not need to start the public conversation with our Obama critique – although there are many legitimate and important critiques to make. Perhaps we start with how do we build the infrastructure to support progressive, local work that helps channel this new activism? What are the next fights/ initiatives we can craft to bring people closer to a concrete political framework that solves problems, broadens their imagination and deepens their analysis? What are the necessary reforms, frames, stories, institutional changes that help to facilitate this larger project? And what new stories can be told, new dreams that can be inspired? In short, what are the cool next things that, yes we can do?
I have long believed that no one ever takes anything that they don’t somehow believe they are entitled to. It is at the core of what made me uncomfortable with such concepts like “Take Back America.” How can I take back America when, as Langston Hughes wrote so eloquently, it never was America to me?
Which brings me back to where I began. Today, there are many more folk for whom America is closer to being “America” to them. I can either dismiss this as wide eyed ignorance or I can work with others to leverage this new confidence to advance change we can depend on. Perhaps it will require me to give up my perception of myself as a “captive in Babylon” and embrace this project of making this country truly home – in every sense of the word – for the people who built it and keep it going every day.
There is much more to say but this is already way longer than I planned. Besides, it would seem that our mailboxes are already clogged with notes like these. (It didn’t stop me, though.) Still, I’m hoping this is just another node of a conversation. If we don’t get all the answers, we can at least figure out what the heck are the questions.
It’s also true that sometimes you just need to stop thinking and just celebrate the good things in life. Hope you are taking time to do just that.
Makani Themba-Nixon is Executive Director of The Praxis Project, a nonprofit organization helping communities use media and policy advocacy to advance health equity and justice.
Thanks to Paul Buhle / The Rag Blog