My Distinctly American Celebration on Election Day

So after a nice refreshing time at my small group (four guys chillin on couches talking about faith over chilled beverages….niiice), I hopped into my car to catch some election coverage as I found a late night place to hole up and do my studying for the night. As I pulled up to the 24-hour starbucks on Belmont I heard NPR project that Obama was gonna win the whole darned thing. I immediately got a call from one joy-filled friend that made me happy and only increased my sense of relief; finally its over, it happened. Awesome.

I walked into the starbucks, and was immediately greeted by a bustling crowd of folks. I realized it was probably a mistake to study here. But the night turned out to be a lot better than expected. A lot. As soon as I plugged in, I got online and was watching the live video feed of the the Obama rally.Though I was in a corner of the store with headphones on, after a little while I felt a tap on the back of my shoulder and a man asked if he could watch with me. His name was Terrance, he preferred “T” and he was a young black man about my age. He was wearing sweat pants and a bandana… he immediately struck me as someone softspoken and relaxed, but also singularly interested in watching, which led to his request.

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.

As we watched, this other guy, a large 30-something boistrously rotund latino man with a big bald shiny head, a big baggy yankees windbreaker and shinny bling bling around his neck plugged his cell phone next to my computer and started asking us questions about the election. “Did McCain speak yet? What did he say? What about Palin? He was also cracking completely random and obscene jokes about weed and crack now being legalized, which made me a little uncomfortable, but the whole cafe was laughing, blacks and whites, so why shouldn’t the one Asian guy in the room also laugh too?

But we eventually started watching the speech.

It’s the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled – Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of Red States and Blue States: we are, and always will be, the United States of America.

“Now watch, wait for his horns to come out and the tail. He’s gonna be like SURPRISE! I got you all!” Big boistrous latino bling bling guy (I didn’t catch his name, I’ll just call him Freddy… he looked liek a freddy) said. What does he mean? I wondered to myself. T was laughing hysterically though, as if he got it. Then I heard a loud effeminate voice from behind me say, “They ain’t calling him president…. they still callin him Obama. He’s PRESIDENT OBAMA now, they don’t wanna admit it.” He was talking about the media, who was calling him “President-elect Obama.” It was a tall slender black man named Jamal (I think that was his name). He was wearing tight pants and tight jeans, had a worn out duffle bag and had gotten a free water and was watching us from a distance, he joined our little election day watch party.

Its the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.

Then Freddy and Jamal riffed off each other for the rest of the speech, cracking jokes, most of the ridiculous, apocryphal and obscene… probably would be considered racist if it wasn’t for an african american and a latino man spewing them…

“Fox still doesn’t want to say Obama one. They a bunch of little bitches.”

“Jesse Jackson has been cryin ever since they announced Obama won. Its not cuz he’s happy, he’s sad that he wasn’t able to be the first black president.” That one got the cafe laughing… a lot of people seemed to have fun at the dear Reverend’s expense.

“I think Obama is going to convert back to Islam now that he’s president.” Jamal was pretty convinced that Obama was a secret Muslim. T spoke up and said naw he isn’t and saying we know that because Michelle is a “true Christian.” Jamal wouldn’t have it and say… now he’s gonna come out and be who he really is. He was being totally serious, yet I couldn’t tell if it was also meant to be a joke, but Freddy was laughing either way.

I was never the likeliest candidate for this office. We didnt start with much money or many endorsements. Our campaign was not hatched in the halls of Washington – it began in the backyards of Des Moines and the living rooms of Concord and the front porches of Charleston.

It was built by working men and women who dug into what little savings they had to give five dollars and ten dollars and twenty dollars to this cause. It grew strength from the young people who rejected the myth of their generations apathy; who left their homes and their families for jobs that offered little pay and less sleep; from the not-so-young people who braved the bitter cold and scorching heat to knock on the doors of perfect strangers; from the millions of Americans who volunteered, and organized, and proved that more than two centuries later, a government of the people, by the people and for the people has not perished from this Earth. This is your victory.

T didn’t say much, he definitely laughed heartily even at the most ridiculous jokes/comments. He was trying his best to listen to what obama was saying even through my weak macbook speakers. Freddy stepped out for a smoke and came back exclaiming,

“Awww hell no. The temperature dropped like 20 degrees. IT must be because Obama one, hell has froze over cuz obama won. It really did get cold once Obama won. Somebody must not have liked it.”

I know you didnt do this just to win an election and I know you didnt do it for me. You did it because you understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead. For even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime – two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century. Even as we stand here tonight, we know there are brave Americans waking up in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan to risk their lives for us. There are mothers and fathers who will lie awake after their children fall asleep and wonder how they’ll make the mortgage, or pay their doctors bills, or save enough for college. There is new energy to harness and new jobs to be created; new schools to build and threats to meet and alliances to repair.

I asked them if they wished they were down in Grant Park to see this. T immediately said yea. Freddy had a different take, “If you are bald and light skinned, they aint gonna let you go past North Avenue.” So I guess that’s why Freddy stayed away, huh?

This is our chance to answer that call. This is our moment. This is our time – to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American Dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth – that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that we cant, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes We Can. Thank you, God bless you, and may God Bless the United States of America.

As Obama finished up his speech. I said something about how its crazy how he can be so calm and chill at a moment like this, “He so high right now” Freddy quickly clarified to me. “He smoke liek 6 blunts before he came out there.” Jamal agreed laughing. I was starting to think T was the only guy who thought this was ridiculous but he laughed anyways, so I did too.

I guess Freddy felt energized to start talking about legalizing weed again and he was saying how it would be such a good idea. He was also saying how all the cops that confiscate weed gotta be smoking it… what else would they do with it? I cracked a joke saying that if we sold weed at CVS, maybe we can get this country out of the economic crisis. Jamal didn’t seem to find it funny but thought it was actually a good idea and started mulling it over aloud.

Soon people started streaming by out of the el, buses and cabs, adorned in obama shirts, buttons, hats, balloons signs. They were banging on the windows chanting YES WE CAN. They were opening the doors screaming: O-BA-MA! They were ordering cups of “Obama Joe”…I saw like 4 or 5 people I knew that were coming back from the rally.

I think it was somewhere at that point I was really glad that this was how I was spending my election day. With people who were totally different than me, with people wh osaid stuff that was confusing and perplexing and frankly pretty ridiculous. I was celebrating with total strangers, having conversations on things that were pretty important and on things that were totally superficial. Imagine walking by this starbucks on Belmont and Clark and seeing a thuggish latino bling bling guy a yuppie looking asian guy in a plaid button down shirt, a black man in sweats and cornrows and an ostensibly gay black man bandying about waving his hands back and forth. I know those descriptions are rooted in stereotypes… and in some ways being total strangers, that’s probably a lot of what we were to each other: stereotypes. Yet at the same time, we were laughing, we were celebrating, we were talking. And I dunno, as superficial as that might seem, it probably was a weird and glorious sight to see watching hte four of us huddled in front of a macbook watching the next president of the United States give his victory speech. I know for me, I think it was kind of ridiculous to think that this was how I was spending my election night… with three total strangers.

I don’t know if this is a good thing, but at that moment, the moment of Obama’s victory, I wasn’t celebrating America or basking in the history, I was just enjoying America. The diversity of people. The weird way different people can somehow huddle around a laptop and watch a transformative figure and shoot the breeze on a cool autumn night… no questions asked. And of course that experience is a mixed bag– one part superficial, one part cliche, one part over romanticized… but maybe somewhere in there, buried deep beneath the mundane and the nefarious is something good, something real, something true. It may not make any sense to you, but I was happy last night. I was glad that this was how I was celebrating the election of Barack Obama.

And as the celebration died, Freddy and Jamal left. It was just T and I sitting. I turned off the live feed and got back to work, but T didn’t leave. I think he just wanted to hang out. So we talked. We talked about how beautiful Michelle Obama is. We talked about what kind of Obama shirt we’d like to buy. We talked about what we were going to tell our kids about this day. He told me how he wish his grandma and mom were alive to see this day. I told him how I was shocked that my mom saw right through the whole sarah palin rouse and for the first time in her life bought some yard signs to put in our front yard.

We ended up talking till past 2 in the morning. T is a really amazing guy. He’s 29 years old, raised by a single mom, and now he’s working full time as a condo security guard and putting himself through school to be a veternarian assistant. We spend about an hour talking about animals. He has two really well trained ferrets that’s he’s trained to climb up his legs and sit on his head and nibble his ears. He’s potty trained them. He walks them daily. I gotta say, I had to humbly acknowledge my stereotypes and how they were just shattered to see him walking around Lakeview with a couple of ferrets.

T just loves animals. He had an internship in Harvey a few months ago on a farm where he helped a mother cow give birth to a calf who was coming out of the womb sideways and would have broken its neck had it not had some assistance.

He shared about his experience with racial profiling and jacked up cops on the northside who are willing to pull him over for just taking a walk late at night because he looked, “suspicious.” He talked about how its hard for young black men because sometimes even just being at the wrong place and the wrong time could mean arrest, jail time and a permanent stain on your record. He has relatives in Cabrini and even to visit them can be an occassion for an arrest, a police interrogation or other mishap.

It was a fresh reminder that while Obama’s election was certainly a huge victory and a sign of progress, we still have a long way to go.

**************

I think for many people Tuesday night was a night filled with pride in our country, in our new president, in the direction our nation seems to be going. And I was definitely not immune. To quote Michelle Obama, I think Tuesday night was the first time where I made the conscious, intentional decision to be proud of the fact that I’m an American. I think I was always glad, happy, thankful for America… but yesterday I was PROUD. I was glad. I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else than in Chicago, IL, USA.

We’ll see what happens in the coming months and years, I’m definitely expecting this wave of goodwill for Obama to subside as he has to make tough decisions that won’t go well with each constituency. I’m interested and in anticipation to see how creative his opponents get in trying to derail everything he’s trying to accomplish. I’m looking forward seeing how the American political process functions with someone as seemingly competent, level headed and thoughtful as Obama, and how it will inevitably (as power always will) corrupt, challenge the ideals that he’s stood for in this campaign. But I’m also excited to hope that while my citizenship is with another kingdom in another world, I think I can also root for this present kingdom too. May God bless America… and may America bless God.

As T left me to get back to work at around 2:30 AM, he asked me for my number. We may even grab some burgers this weekend and talk more. I hope we get to do that. Yes we can.

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