By Makani Themba-Nixon
Closer to Home
I've always wanted to love this country. To feel that unalterable sense of home that no matter what it does, it belongs to me. I know people from Chile, Palestine, Rwanda, for example, who have literally lost everything—their parents and siblings murdered, their homes burned to the ground. Still, they fight for their homeland with a sense of ownership, a sense of deep connection that separates the place from the people who run it.
As a Black woman, I have always envied this sense of homeland. Although I changed my name, among other things, to try to make real my sense of Africa as my imagined home, I, like many others in this country, have long felt homeless in this respect.
On election night, for the first time in my life, I saw people gathered to say unequivocally that they finally feel at home in this country. I walked the streets of this nation's capital built by enslaved Africans until nearly dawn. Spontaneous gatherings were sprouting everywhere. I stood in the crush of thousands at the White House as people sang, "Na Na Na Na, Na Na Na Na. Hey, hey, hey. Goodbye…" They chanted, "Who's House? Our House!" And then I saw another first: the White House turned off every light—in the house and on the grounds. It was the physical manifestation of what they've done for the last eight years: sit in the dark and pretend we weren't there.
In Adams Morgan, a lively queer group brought some extra flava by leading 18th Street in the chant, "Obama for Yo Mama!" U Street was straight out of control. The Ethiopian clubs were bumping , and in the middle of the street a multinational dance-off converged that repped much of East and West Africa, frat boys and old school hip hop of all stripes. It felt like being in South Africa after Mandela was elected or in Venezuela after Chavez. It felt like anywhere but the US after an election.
I don't think many offices got cleaned that night. Folk were out in their jumpsuits, standing on the yellow line, just hooping and hollering to the sound of cars honking and people beating rhythmically on their car roofs. Downtown DC was full of smiling, crying people so full of joy and, yes, hope, that they would spontaneously talk to others, bursting with analysis. At the National Council of Negro Women, the National Coalition for Black Civic Participation had an old school party where people cried and danced and hugged each other and, yes, did the electric slide to freedom.A New Progressive Coalition?
Earlier in the day, four hundred people stood in line at 4am in Woodbridge, Virginia determined to vote in a state that does not require employers to allow employees paid time off for voting. I spoke to a waitress in Alexandria who had just found out she had a shift change and was heartbroken. She would miss her first chance to vote after becoming a citizen last year.
There was a family from Culpepper, Virginia including a 62-year-old grandmother and three grandchildren in their twenties who were voting for the first time. And then there were the day laborers who moved from organizing around local conditions to organizing around national elections in less than a year. These brothers, members of Tenant Workers United, spent Election Day knocking on doors in the rain because they had come to see the connection between their lives and the elections. There are so many stories. I am too full to do them justice. They are each their own miracle.
Stories like these belied the neat red-blue dichotomy that so dominated network news later that night. The turnout was much more nuanced and often more raced. Over and over, Obama victories told a similar story: people of color and young whites were key.
Maybe now, as we examine further the turnout demographic in places like North Carolina, Indiana, New Mexico, Colorado and more, we can finally lay to rest this unsubstantiated worship of the soccer mom/NASCAR dad as the necessary foundation for progressive victory. No more "blueprints" that put money in every place but urban centers. No more colored people as after thoughts. No more Joe Six Pack or Joe the Plumber as the archetypal American story. Maybe we can face the fact that it was Jose and Shanequa and Mohammed who made the difference this season.
Sure, there was vote flipping, vote stealing and a biased voting system that held Obama back from an even more impressive win. I mean what kind of system won't mandate time off to vote or will allow Ted Stevens (R-AK) to run for Senate as a convicted felon but not allow our ex-offenders, who have done their time, to vote?
But this year, long-time warriors like the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, Lawyers' Committee, NAACP and Advancement Project were joined by the Obama campaign, which organized voter protection teams in every state where funny business was expected. It was another historic first: a Democratic candidate that did not participate in the long-time, bi-partisan "gentlemen's agreement" to look the other way on voter suppression. In fact, Obama was the first major party nominee to implement a full-blown street operation that valued our communities' vote, and in doing so, bucked a century old tradition of paying "leaders" to "deliver" us.Now What
Clearly, the eagerness of so many to translate their newfound activism and burgeoning political literacy into local action opens up new opportunities. I literally heard hundreds of people say to me, "This is not about Obama. He is just an agent. Now, we have to take responsibility to get involved where we are."
And that's what keeps me up at night. How do we keep from blowing this opportunity? What do we need to let go of and embrace in order to really see our way ahead?
I have friends who are deeply consternated by the elections. They are afraid of how hard it will be to move a progressive agenda because of the passion that people feel about Obama's candidacy. On the one hand, there is greater access and likelihood he will embrace some key issues. On the other hand, his "big tent" paradigm creates greater pressure to distance himself from many progressive issues including avoiding an attack against Iran. And then there's that "post racial" thing.
Our work will be even harder, they say, because it will be difficult to hold him accountable. Sure, but how well did we hold Bush accountable? And is accountability the end game or is it power to govern, to move our agendas? And what is the strategic relationship between the two?
If it's the latter, we might not need to start the public conversation with an Obama critique, although there are many legitimate and important ones to make. Perhaps we start with building the infrastructure to support progressive, local work that helps channel this new activism—particularly in African American communities, where progressive institutions remain severely under-resourced.
Perhaps we also ask how we bring people closer to a concrete political framework that solves problems, broadens the imagination and deepens the analysis. What are the necessary reforms, frames and institutional changes that will help facilitate this larger project? And what new stories can be told, new dreams inspired?
I have long believed that no one ever takes anything that they don't somehow believe they are entitled to. It is at the core of what made me uncomfortable with such concepts like "Take Back America." How can I take back America when, as Langston Hughes wrote so eloquently, it never was America to me?
Which brings me back to where I began. Today, there are many more folk for whom America is closer to being "America" to them. I can either dismiss this as wide-eyed ignorance or I can work with others to leverage this new confidence to advance change we can depend on. Perhaps it will require me to give up my perception of myself as a "captive in Babylon" and embrace the project of making this country truly home -- in every sense of the word -- for the people who built it and keep it going every day.