As I moved to hop off the 6 at 51st and Lake Park the young black driver mouthed something incomprehensible and thrust his arm my way for a fist bump. He caught me off guard, in higher spirits than most CTA drivers stuck letting in wind and snow every quarter mile. I figured one of two things accounted for his mood. It was either that he was drunk or high, or that soon a white southerner will hand a South Side black the keys to the White House. Maybe both. I bumped and wished him well.
I know Obama’s inauguration means more for others than me. Not because I’m any less relieved than the rest of the world that the Bush era closes just hours of now. 2000 was the first presidential election I was eligible to vote in, and through the drama of the following weeks I lost hours of sleep and hundreds of calories from anxiety over the course a Bush Administration might take. As a usually articulate Texan professor said of Bush during the 2000 primaries, “If this guy’s elected . . . well, that’s scary.” His prescient words rang in my ears more times these last eight years than I’m comfortable counting. I too am long since ready for this nightmare to end.
No, I know it means more for others because I was at Grant Park on election night, in the free viewing section with most of the people I rode up from Hyde Park with, mostly students and African Americans from the neighborhood. The bus was packed, there was no moving except together with each other and the bus, bodies pressed to warm bodies. From security concerns Lake Shore Drive was closed, so the driver took an alternate turn up Martin Luther King Drive toward the Loop. I doubt many missed the symbolism.
Someone toward the front had a radio or smart phone and announced states by name as they were called. Each time the bus roared. “Pennsylvania!” “Woo!” Caught by the momentum we started congratulating each other for the outcomes of other states. Our enthusiasm surged past elation so that we came to our destination prepped for a win and deeply in love with everyone.
When the West Coast polls closed and CNN called the race for Obama, Grant Park erupted with deafening noise that finally hushed to let John McCain concede the race. Hushed, but not silenced; not without blacks talking back to the old man on the screen, venting lifetimes of anger. It had never been more apparent to me why this election mattered. When Obama spoke, I saw so many damp eyes. I’d had a sense that I needed to be in Grant Park that night, with the crowd, come what may. I knew it would be history but I couldn’t know just what kind of history. The back talk and the tears cleared that up for me.
One of the thousands of tiny glowing screens in the crowd belonged to the African American man in front of me. His open cell phone was close enough for me to read his half written text message, which read something like, “I hope obama inspires manhood in u.” I watched him deliberate over his words for each of the five or six texts I saw him send, each an even toned admonition. He himself was small and slow — not the image one conjures when given the word “manhood.” Yet there he was, inspired by the event and empowered to challenge others to responsibility.
We have a long way to go past January 20, 2009, toward restoring to every member of our society the dignity and promise of life in this country we share. Still I am hopeful the small acts I have been so privileged to witness signal great shifts in the national consciousness such that Dr. King’s vision of a community whose members judge each other solely “by the content of their character” may soon not simply be a dream.
It is not up to me to make what changes need making, but without question it is my duty to respond in the affirmative when called; the driver’s extended fist was an honor I’d have been wrong to refuse. In that moment we weren’t a black driver and a white rider, just folks on a bus in the middle of a city. Like I said, I’m hopeful.