Yesterday at work, I snapped. OK, not postal. But I lost my "live and let live" attitude that I try to maintain with others when I'm at work or out socially.
I work for a university. One joy of doing so is being surrounded by smart, politically-engaged colleagues. The downside is that it's easy, in times like now, to spend work hours caught up in the campaign excitement. I was trying, for at least a few hours, to have an "Obama-free-zone."
No avail. From 9:30am until 3:30pm, 90% of my email traffic was Obama v HRC. My friends wanted to talk. I wanted to talk. Click on Drudge. Click on The Page. Of course, click on HuffPo. I was getting work done. But only in-between poll updates, and new takes on HRC's near-tears.
So when some of my colleagues started talking about Obama, and about his chances, I tried to tune them out. But it was hard. One young black woman spoke of how she didn't quite trust the Iowa results alone, that she would have to see what happened in New Hampshire. Another colleague agreed. There was some back and forth about how Iowa is not the end all/be all of indicators. But the bottom line was this: they just didn't trust that middle America, when Obama morphs from novelty to nominee, would maintain their support. Once colleague cited examples of white people she knew who once were rabid supporters of Obama only to now "suddenly" succumb to arguments of his relative inexperience.
I couldn't stay silent. I turned around and said look, sometimes, you can't just wait and see. You have to step out in support of your candidate. That the very act of stepping up for him is positive pro-action that changes the game. My other colleague retorted that while she respected my opinions, she had a right to be cautious. (And for this colleague in particular, Obama is simply not her first choice.)
However, at a visceral level, the caution argument frustrates me. For those of us open to supporting Obama, but feel we must wait and see, I'm afraid that doing so could lead us to miss our moment. As Obama himself says often, we don't have a right to be tired (or for that matter, passive).
Yet, the caution runs deep.
I am black. Or, as I can say now in 2008, I am mixed-race who identifies as black, and is usually only assumed to be black in parts of the South used to mulattas like me. While I've never been the victim of violent or persistent racism, I have felt the pain of exclusion based on my otherness having grown up as a brown girl in working-class ethnic white suburbs of Detroit. I have also been present to a million dunderheaded racist comments, and subjected to God knows how many assumptions that either due to my race, gender, or both, I'm not someone to be taken seriously.
However, it is only in my adulthood do I fully understand that due to the time and place of my birth, and the fact that my features are such that people think I'm Indian/Greek /Middle Eastern/almost anything before they think Black, I have not felt the boot on the neck (or to the body) that many other black folks have. As I move through the world, I feel like I encounter more cooperation than I do conflict. And if not cooperation -- at least not open hostility. These days, weird racial moments are only on occasion -- not the drip drip kick that others' live with everyday. As of 2008, I have not had trust, or hope, sapped out of me by outsiders, or by family members thinking they're doing me a favor by breaking me first.
So perhaps this makes me more like some of my progressive white friends who are willing to bet everything on Obama. Like the cat that has nine lives, maybe society has left me with a few yet to spend. I don't know.
The question of black reluctance takes me back to one of my first Katrina oral history interviews. I work on a Katrina oral history project. A few weeks after the storm I was the large clearinghouse in Houston where evacuees could come for state and charitable assistance. I asked another young black woman if she would speak with me. She agreed. Towards the end of the interview, I asked her what her dreams were for the future. She looked down and said that she doesn't dream, so she won't be disappointed.
I felt hit by a punch. I wasn't just sad -I was shocked. I'd never felt so insulated in a frame of mind before. All my life I've been a goal-setter surrounded by other goal-setters -- no matter the socio-economic background. But when I think of this young woman now, I can understand why so many black people, disappointed over and over again by the public process, may be reluctant to step forward and put their hopes (or stake their political futures) on a risky candidate.
To the weary, I ask them to consider this: Iowa was a public process. A majority of Iowans stood up in front of their friends, their neighbors, and absolute strangers and said Obama is our man. They did this across the state. Maybe some of them were even being happily PC about it -- making a public stand about who they are, what they believe in, and what America should be about, post-Bush administration. And you know what? Fine. Let some of Obama's support come from people making a stand. That's just as good a motivation as any, as far as I'm concerned, for the caucuses are just that: public performances. Performances that resulted in this critical consequence: they gave heart to those in New Hampshire and across the country that Americans won't just talk lip-service about Obama, but they will stand with him. That he indeed offers the strongest brand of leadership: the kind that inspires a wide swath of us to get out of our seats and do something.
So, how do you heal a broken heart? God if I know. I do know that even if your heart has known the blades of a Cuisinart, you have to be brave enough to get out there and try again. If you don't, you're choosing to live in fear and you're choosing to settle for less.