‘The Amount of Empty Space Around Him’

Lower Manhattanite on watching Obama’s speech in Iowa:

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.

We…were afraid.

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.


16 thoughts on “‘The Amount of Empty Space Around Him’

  1. Jeebus, I hadn’t even thought of it. And I was born two days after MLK died–knowing that this sort of thing can happen is pracically hard-wired into my brain.
    Shit. And I thought I was depressed *yesterday*.
    It’s times like this when I wish I really believed in a god so I could beg, “Please. Not this time.”

  2. A, one of your finest posts. Excellent job of taking the immediate cause of Obama and expanding it to all that the fear has done to what we can be as America!
    Like BuggyQ, I *hadn’t* thought of the possibility of this. On one hand, thank you for expanding my horizons that there are many people who for very real reasons would have this as a first reaction to Obama’s speech. OTOH – curse you for making me think of this.
    Hope you understand what I mean.

  3. Athenae – I understand what you’re saying, but we all should take a lot of solace in the fact that Obama isn’t afraid. And ifhe isn’t, well, then, let us take our cue from him.

  4. It was my first thought too. And I’m not particularly an Obama supporter at this point: I will support the Democratic candidate, but personally, I lean towards Edwards. I think any Democratic candidate would be at risk, because those republicans? They’re killers. But Obama particularly is at risk, for daring to participate in the democratic process just as if he had the right. We’ve always had racism in this country, but when I was a kid (and I remember the passage of the Civil Rights Act) people knew enough to be decently ashamed if that was how they felt, and they knew enough to try to hide their racism because they knew it wasn’t acceptable. I see racism on the increase in this country, and it makes me sick. We’ve fallen so far back.

  5. The people you are talking about are called “terrorists”. Somehow, we never quite got around to taking our own home-grown assholes as seriously as the ones that we subsidize with our oil money.

  6. Brilliant rant, Athenae! Holy shit, I shudder to think what would become of us were something that horrible to happen.

  7. “Fuck them all to hell.”
    Yep. Exactly.
    Bhutto knew what she was doing, and for that reason, as much as I like Edwards, I think Obama could take a play out of Rove’s playbook, and ask Hillary to be VP.
    It kept Bush safe for 8 years.

  8. Amen Sistah A! I too thought exactly the same thing, that his life was at high risk. That the rightwing American terrorists would not let him live. They’d kill him just as they killed Bobby and Martin and John. Benzair and Ghandi, Lincoln and yes even Jesus.
    I think all three of our front runners will be prime targets, but him most of all.
    And Fuck every last one of them to hell. And all of our so called leaders and opinion makers who allow this kind of hatered to fester, hell half of them stir it up.
    Beautiful rant.

  9. Baby, he may make it, too, and live a long and healthy life.
    Despair over such unnecessary yet ever-present elements in our lives scares the living bejeezus out of me as well, but we can’t focus on that or we’ll go mad. What if some asshole of a child predator makes off with one of my nieces? What if a drunk driver gets my husband or brother? What if a freak with a boner for Allah decides to blow up the airplane that my parents will take back to the States? What if someone mugs, assaults or shoots at me here in New Orleans? What if the jerkoffs fighting the War On Terror in Iraq create nothing but the terror you speak of in this nation, their own home? Heaven forbid.
    If we live in that cocoon of fear, we will die a little inside everyday. This is why I try hard to consider the more pleasant outcome as the default one until something really bad happens.
    (And, ssssshhh, stop giving the wackos ideas!)

  10. does show why georgie is still here.
    i haven’t jumped on obama for this reason. but that doesn’t mean he isn’t electable. because he may be what we need to unite this fucking country after georgie and dickie and toooooo many years of republikkkan/Fux gnews rules.

  11. That was so beautifully written, and so inspiring.
    Fear is the weapon used against those who dare to hope. We fear for the hope that might be lost, and so hope is lost directly. Hope, therefore, is a form of courage – our one and only true weapon in the fight against the darkness.

  12. dr2chase you are exactly right. I’ve been calling our home grown haters “terrorists” for years and it never goes over well. Usually someone is talking about how hate crimes are a political construct that violates the idea that all men are equal. Then I point out that by using the same logic there shouldn’t be terrorism laws either. If they think murdering a man for being black or homosexual should be treated the same as murdering a man for money, then they should say the same for murdering a man for not being Muslim enough or whatever moronic reason terrorist give to justify their actions.
    Then they start getting defensive. I believe there are two reasons they want to separate terrorism and hate crimes. 1) those who commit hate crimes are likely to be conservative Christians like themselves 2) they don’t like the victims of hate crimes so that doesn’t make hurting those people such a bad thing.
    Think about it, terrorism and hate crimes both have the objective of causing fear in a group of people and striking against someone just because they’re part of a group. The only difference is hate crimes are against “them” and terrorism is against “us”.

  13. Well written. I’m sure there’s a part of Obama’s mind that is scared spitless of exactly what you have put in words, but he perseveres because he believes in the rightness of his candidacy. Hope is a powerful thing, and Obama is giving it to us. That will make others afraid, because their power is based on crushing hope in others.

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