It took an eternity for Obama to get to the mic to speak, and in that eternity, I felt the muscles in my neck tense up. The stepson wrapped his hand about his legs and bored in to the screen. And once Obama started talking, after about fifteen seconds, my wife suddenly flipped over towards the wall, covering her head and saying through the muffled blankets…
“I can’t watch!”
And in that moment, she verbalized exactly what was on my mind, and I dare say what was on the minds of a considerable majority of the African Americans watching him call down verbal thunder in those minutes.
I found myself not unconsciously scanning the roaring crowd, praying to not see a weapon pop above the throng and point at him. I couldn’t stop myself. When the camera lingered on him too long during stretches of the speech, I averted my eyes for a few seconds, fearful that I might catch a tragic moment playing out in horrific real-time. I’d look back again a second or two later.
I found I couldn’t really absorb or analyze the speech as I’d have liked. I was too busy checking out cameras in the crowd held aloft, and wondering about security. “Jesus, he gets so many people at his events! How the fuck is he gonna secure the venues? Ohhhhh man…”
“Honey,” I implored. “C’mon, you asked me to watch it with you. You gotta watch it.” I said this just as much to convince myself as her.
“It’s-it’s okay. I’ll just listen.”
The phone rang, jarringly.
“Hello?”, I ask.
“You watching this?”, my friend “D” asked quietly.
“You think he’s wearin’ a vest?
A long beat from me. “Well…I’m sure he’s got Secret Service protection.”
“Is he wearin’ a vest to protect himself against those motherfuckers?”
“Well, if he didn’t before tonight, he will be by tomorrow”, I replied.
“This is fucking insane.” he added. “He won Iowa. Iowa? Do you know how that’s gonna shake certain people up?”
“D” was speaking the gut-wrenching unspoken truth—almost in a whisper. I don’t know why.
“Can we just enjoy this for tonight? Just soak it in for a min-“
“I can’t enjoy this shit!”, he said cutting me off. “I’m scanning the crowd for grenade-tossers and shit. You saw the Bhutto video. I can’t get that shit outta my mind. There’s a lotta nuts in this country, and a lotta guns, and—”
“I know, I know! Just…lemme delude myself for a few minutes and watch this thing and think positive thoughts, okay?”
“Okay.”, he said. “But you know he’s gonna wake up tomorrow and say ‘Ho-leeeee shit…”
“I’m sayin’ it now”, I said. The call ended. Obama was still speaking, rolling now in seminary-style up-and-down waves. Pause. Set the jaw. Yeah, Malcolm X, Billy Graham, Adam Clayton Powell…MLK speechifying one-oh-fucking-one..
Phone rings again. Don’t know who—the cordless with the display is up front.
“Where is his security! Why are so many people surrounding him? Are they crazy?”
It was Mama.
“Sigh!” “I just don’t know, Mama. I’m guessing…no…I’m praying they have it all under control. He looks pretty confident up there, like he knows everything’s well in hand. I don’t think his wife would let him be up there if there was a serious risk.”
“Well,” she said, “remember, the man who cradled Malcolm’s head in his arms at the Audubon was a FBI undercover working right next to Malcolm…and he didn’t even know it.”
Reading this just makes me so unbelievably angry, because I thought the same exact thing. Oh, God, it’s a matter of time. Oh, God, it’s a matter of time until this is taken away from this country, too. I’m not saying this because I’m an Obama girl, and I’m not saying Lower Manhattanite and everyone else was wrong to be afraid. They’re right to be afraid. What’s wrong is the ascent of the people who MADE us afraid.
And you know what?
Fuck them all to hell.
Fuck the people who have made us afraid of even a little sign of something great in our leaders and ourselves.
Fuck the people who’ve made us distrust joy and dread victory, who’ve made us more comfortable sitting on our hands and hiding in our holes than reaching out and rising up.
Fuck the criminal element in this country that has led us to this by stamping out by force or attrition every abmition toward generosity and openness and decency and courage, who’ve made every moment of beauty and goddamn …reaching upward toward something more nothing more than a risk factor, an exercise in lovely futility. Fuck the people who’ve taken hope away from us, twisted and blackened it, shot it down in the dark. The shooters and the hate groups buying the bullets, the politicians making noises about who deserves to live and die and prosper and fail, the businessmen who say you have to want only what you can get, and what you can get is what I say, the followers who confuse cowardice with inevitability, the cynics who’d rather be too cool for the room than admit they might not know everything, the patronizing pricks who think caring about your country is cute, and everybody who sees atrocity and shrugs and goes back to breakfast because hey, what can you do.
Despair, a priest acquaintance once told me, is a sin because in despairing, we forget what we are capable of as God’s creations. We abandon our own potential. We wrap our misery around us and we lie down quiet, and when someone comes along to tell us that it doesn’t have to be that way, we cover our ears and shut our eyes, because we’re just that sure it’s hopeless. And for years and years now, years and years and years, we’ve had almost nothing but people in power telling us despair is sensible and right, and you should shop instead of caring, and surrender instead of fighting, and try as best you can to keep the wolf from your own door because that’s all you have in you, you pathetic little worms.
For years now, we’ve only been told what we can’t do, not what we can, so is it any wonder we see this campaign season, and it’s not just Obama, it’s all of them, these imperfect but decent people debating the great questions and fighting to lead, is it any wonder in the back of our minds we think, “Oh, shit, here it comes again, we’re gonna get fucked somehow?” For years now that’s all we’ve known. And the mere possibility that there might be another way needs a bulletproof vest to protect it, even then, is just that fragile, just that vulnerable, has just that much empty space around it.