Election Day in Harlem

November 6, 2008

The warm embrace of solidarity and the infectious optimism of victory were all over the streets.

MY ELECTION day in Harlem began early in the morning, on a crosstown bus that takes me to work.

I sat in the back next to a woman who (as she proudly announced to her fellow passengers) was calling everyone in her phone's memory to remind them to vote. If they didn't pick up, she sang a few bars of Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come" into their voicemail.

At work, we shared stories of long lines at our local voting booths. Many of us, afraid of being late to work, abandoned the lines and hoped to try again in the evening. There was a giddy, nervous vibe in the air, and you could still find plenty of people who were willing to bet against an Obama victory.

When the first networks called the election for Obama, I was at an election party on 122nd Street. I ran outside and started recording footage of the crowds gathering around a Jumbo-tron at 125th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard.

I felt like a tiny ship, tossed back and forth on a frothy sea of human emotion and pride in the historic election of the first African American president of the U.S. Raw joy was dominant, but there was also relief, pride, shock and wonder.

A group of young women ran by me, screaming. Everyone looked everyone in the eye, cars honked incessantly, and Obama's name was shouted from countless apartment windows. A woman confronted people on the sidewalk individually, demanding over and over again the answer to the question, "Who's your president?"

As I crossed 125th Street and entered the dense crowd, I heard three words repeated, almost like a mantra, "WE did this! WE did this!"

When the song "Ain't No Stopping Us Now" came blaring out the speakers, the whole gathering became a giant outdoor dance party. But it wasn't just a good beat. The lyrics on everyone's lips gave a glimpse of the ideas invested in this moment:

There've been so many things that have held us down
But now it looks like things are finally comin' around, yeah
I know we've got a long long way to go, yeah
And where we'll end up, I don't know
But we won't let nothing hold us back
We gonna get ourselves together
We gonna polish up our act, yeah
And if you've ever been held down before
I know that you refuse to be held down any more, yeah yeah
Don't you let nothing, nothing
Nothing stand in your way

I RAN back inside to hear Obama's acceptance speech. It was hard not to tear up hearing him channel Martin Luther King ("We, as a people, will get there") and even Sam Cooke ("It's been a long time coming...but change has come to America"). I held my tears, though, knowing that MLK would have been highly critical of the people who, according to the media, are supposed to get positions in an Obama administration--like Bush's Defense Secretary and the top House Democrat Rahm Emanuel.

Obama promised to move past the "same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long," which sounded to me like another way to pledge himself not to fight for progressive ideals.

My friends and I went back outside to interview people on our way to the train station. Some spoke to the feeling that racial barriers were being torn down that night. "After this, there's no way I can fail," one woman told me. A young man hoped that now there wouldn't be so much money spent on jailing people, and that he could go out and just "get good grades, go to school."

Still another didn't want to hold Obama to having to make too much progress, given how messed up the country is. "He can't do it in four years," the man warned. "He needs more than four years." But at the same time, the whole celebration spoke to the high expectations that people have for Obama.

A kind of euphoria fueled the excitement. Strangers were hugging and taking pictures with each other--like long-lost relatives--and often the strangers were of different races.

Folks went out of their way to greet white people on the street and share congratulations. "This isn't just for Black people, this is about everybody," I heard many say. Given the rampant gentrification of Harlem, and the current rate of unemployment for African Americans, this was a profoundly magnanimous reaction.

A shiny new subway car was being driven across 125th Street during the celebration, but the truck it rode on had to stop again and again, because people were climbing all over it. "That's a change already," one woman joked to me, "new subway cars!"

The police chased off the train-climbers, but the crowd moved in close and began yelling. When no one was arrested, an enormous cheer went up.

The warm embrace of solidarity and the infectious optimism of victory were all over the streets of Harlem. This was not only the fall of Bush and Cheney's brand of neoconservatism. Obama himself nailed it on the head: for millions, a deep-rooted cynicism was shattered on Election Night--and that will be important to the struggles ahead.

Huge numbers of people are energized by the fact that, yes, we can elect a Black president. What we get from this president depends mostly on what happens to this energy, and less on the president himself. The question we must ask now is: "With solidarity, hope, and organization...what else can we do?"

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