Here is a truth I rarely acknowledge about myself: Sometimes words and ideas get stuck in my head. And there is nothing I can do to get them out, to let others take their place, until I put them in writing. Sometimes it matters to me that others read them, sometimes not. Whether that is OCD or simply the mark of a writer, I neither know nor care. But these words were there and now they’re here. And tomorrow [today, by the time you read this] I will be able to regain focus and allow others to fill the space — with any luck they’ll be words that belong in the book I’m supposed to be writing.
For me, and for many people I know, the Presidential election was not about race. I can’t tell you how many times in the past months I’ve heard people say race didn’t matter in this election. I don’t think any of us were being disingenuous, but we were profoundly mistaken.
Anyone who knows anything at all about me knows I supported and voted for Barack Obama — in the Democratic primary as well as in the general election. In order of importance, I based my decision on the following: He’s a Democrat. I agree with much of what he said about issues. He is extraordinarily intelligent and articulate. He seems genuinely passionate about implementing change in ways that I think will improve this country. His spouse is completely awesome and she thinks highly of him. He’s young and energetic and charismatic, yet also calm and confident, a natural leader. And, oh yeah, he’s “black” and wouldn’t it be amazing and historically significant to elect a black President.
I didn’t vote for him because he’s black, any more than I would have NOT voted for him because he’s black. His racial makeup, define or describe it how you will, had virtually nothing to do with my decision. Neither, for that matter, did his religion.
Maybe I’m just terribly naive, but until Tuesday night I assumed the majority of people in this country felt the same. Oh sure, I know there are plenty of bigots and racists — all over the country, not just here in the South — who would never vote for a black person no matter the office. Especially not for the office that is arguably the most powerful in the world. I like to think those people are a minority. Then again, I also like to think I can eat chocolate with impunity.
But my assumptions about the importance of race changed Tuesday night, watching black people react to Obama’s election. Seeing Andrew Young, one of the most gifted orators of our time, so overcome with emotion he could barely speak. Seeing Jesse Jackson with tears streaming unchecked down his face. Seeing all the (predominantly) black supporters gathered in Chicago’s Grant Park, obviously in the grips of powerful emotion and overwhelming joy.
Okay, I know the Bush years were awful and many of us were desperate not to have four more years of the same, but these people were reacting to much more than having escaped the prospect of that.
And then I saw Oprah Winfrey in the crowd. She wasn’t there as a superstar. There was no hoopla, no bright lights spotlighting her, no reporters lining up for an interview. She was standing patiently with friends, waiting to hear Obama speak. Just another face in the crowd, her quiet presence so unremarkable it was stunning. And the expression on her face. I can’t even describe it. It was as if all her wealth and power and celebrity, all her very impressive accomplishments, were in that moment meaningless. Insignificant when measured against Obama’s achievement that night. She was there not as Oprah, but as a black person. Standing witness to what for many was an overwhelmingly important milestone in history. American history. Certainly I had known this event would be cause for celebration. Deservedly so. It was the depth, the intensity of emotion it brought forth that caught me off guard.
Right then, everything inside of me took a sharp breath and held it and became very still and then a quiet voice in my head said, simply, “Oh.” And I couldn’t believe I had not realized until that moment how very much race does still matter in this country. How very important it is, not just to small-minded bigots, but to those who have suffered, in too many cases are still suffering, because of it. And how very mistaken some of us were in our assessment of its continued weightiness.
Barack Obama was not elected solely by black voters. Millions of white Americans had to believe race was not a pejorative issue — in fact, many considered it to be irrelevant — in order to vote for a man in an election in which, for millions of black Americans, the race of that man was of vast importance.
And I can’t decide whether that’s ironic or hopeful or somehow just heartbreaking.