Wednesday, November 12, 2008

One Obama vote revisited

Posted on Wed, Nov 12, 2008 at 4:16 PM

Former MT staffer Jennifer Bagwell wanted to share her reflections on last week’s Election Day:

The afternoon of Nov. 4, Denise came to the door in curlers and told us how they wouldn’t let her vote.

“I was so geeked,” she said, now looking crestfallen. “I was all dressed up.”

It was now hours later on the Election Day that blew away any others in recent memory. As with many people in her predominantly African-American neighborhood in Detroit, Denise had wanted to vote for Barack Obama. She stood in her doorway, describing to me and another Obama campaign volunteer how she had walked several blocks down to the fire station on Second Avenue — not an easy feat, given a health condition that makes it difficult for her to walk — only to be deterred over confusion about her registration. She didn’t know if she was listed under her maiden name or her married name, and didn’t want to make problems for poll workers, so she went home without voting.

When we showed up at her door, she told us she hadn’t voted since her divorce. In fact, the 50-year-old grandmother of 10 had never before voted for president. We put her on the phone with the campaign hotline, and they let her know she was, in fact, registered under her maiden name — Glaze. Since that was the name on her current ID, there’d be no difficulty at all in casting a ballot.

She looked for a second as if she might cry, but instead went into the house, emerging moments later with a bright yellow polka-dot scarf tied around her curlers. We offered her a ride, and as we walked out to the car she noticed her neighbors standing around. She laughed.

“They think you’re taking me away,” she said. “I don’t care. I’m going to vote!”

There must have been a million tiny moments like this all over the country, leading up to the election and immediately afterward — moments of personal and collective determination that began breathing new life into many of us, alleviating the sad, sagging sense of hopelessness that we have been carrying around about our great country, our world. One voter reported that her 18-year-old niece refused to have surgery at a local hospital for appendicitis until she had voted absentee. Another said she knew of a woman in Southfield who went into labor waiting to vote. And then there were moments after the election, like when people laid on their horns in the middle of Woodward Avenue, or when I returned to my Detroit apartment around 2 a.m. and was approached by two African-American men in a car, who rolled down their window and simply said: “We did it.”

The day after the election, the awestruck weariness was palpable. And yet, there really is no time to rest. As Obama prepares to take the helm, we all know that we face a stark set of circumstances, and no amount of dancing in the streets is going to make them go away. People are wondering: Can Obama really do what he says he’s going to do? But another, perhaps even more exciting question hangs in the air for voters now that the election has passed: Now that we’ve seen what we can do, what can we do now?

It’s question that only we can answer. Just as we threw our gusto behind this unlikely candidate, we can now go out into our communities and, with a renewed sense of personal agency and hope, really sink our energy into what matters most to us. We can donate hours or days, money or time, physical or intellectual might. We can also chose to put our differences behind us, and try to explore common ground with those who voted differently than we did, with an eye toward what we can accomplish together in the next four years and beyond.

I think about Denise, whom we drove back to the fire station in the early afternoon for a second try at voting for president. There wasn’t a line, but it took a little while for her to finish. We peered in at her, and saw that she was sitting at a special voting machine for people who have trouble standing, surrounded by helpful campaign workers. Maybe, in the end, part of what she needed was for someone to remind her that she really counted. Thanks to her own perseverance and courage, she did.

When we drove Denise back home, the neighbors — some of whom had been standing around earlier, eyeing us suspiciously — were now ready to help us find other likely Obama voters so we could remind them to vote too.

That night, Denise stayed up late to watch Obama be declared the next president. She said that in the wake of the election, she feels inspired to be more positive and helpful.

“I’ve never felt as free as I do today,” she said. “I’m going to put it in my own life. If he can do it, I know I can do it. You’re not supposed to just sit and take things the way they are. You can change things.”

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