I have recently returned from the inauguration, but this was written the night he was elected. I am running behind, but more on understanding implications than just writing.
Mccain conceded before the polls closed in Alaska or Hawaii; Obama gave his acceptance speech, and the honking and shouting in Cambridge, Massachusetts began. By 1am something frenetic was beginning to sizzle in the air. I walk down Mass Ave to Harvard Square. Encountering a jubilant group of well muscled students, my first (clearly compulsory) high five feels like it’s going to take off my right shoulder.
Cars go by honking, each with their own tattoo, a couple with a kind of car alarm like regularity. Then a Cambridge night bus goes by, driver pounding out his own song oblivious to any political sanctity of municipal on-the-clock time. Something is starting, and no one is starting it. My own footsteps take on a kind of involuntary musicality. I am happy, an infectious almost involuntary kind of happy, coming on like getting damp in a growing rainstorm. Everything around me is getting more musical.
Harvard Square is packed. Whoo hoo! woah! honk! Then the Yes we Cans begin, mixed with some yes we dids. (I thought it was the earliest concession speech of my life; my mom confirmed she was pretty sure it was the earliest of hers too.) People are feeling powerful, filling the streets and climbing the street furniture, dripping from the fences and climbing over each other, still waving campaign signs. Yes we did.
Pretty soon they are chanting Obama! Obama! But no cry lasts for long against the general exuberance. There is no rally here, no event, not even a party.
This is a riot of happy.
It was, said one bemused cop who was vaguely stopping anyone from heading even deeper into Harvard Square, like when the Red Socks won the World Series. “Did you expect this?” He snorted. “We probably should have.” What we didn’t know at the time was that this involved a lot more of the world than the World Series generally does. Pictures and videos were rolling in of spontaneous happy riots breaking out all over the US, all over the world. They were dancing in the streets in Canada, Jubilant in Europe, singing in Brazil. Everyone owned this election, even if just a little bit. A lot of the world was exhaling in relief. It’s more than relief here, something has broken free, and is riding the crowd every bit as much as the crowd is riding it.
They are happy when they block traffic. They are thrilled when they let it through. The price of getting through: you have to high five everyone beside your car. Another nightbus comes by, empty, to outrageous applause. All this goes for the police as well. An old grizzled black Cambridge policeman missing his front teeth demonstrates an almost magical power to move the crowd around by high fiving people and shouting “Yes we can!” with an honest if dual-purposed glee. He waves people back and frees up the road, while they stumble over each other to come high five him.
Yes we did! Yes we did!
As I walked into Harvard square a middle aged black man in a tatty suit jacket stopped me. He stopped me in particular because I had to know, he had to make me know something.
“I’m going to be a better man from today,” he explained in a thick accent, “I’m not going to cheat on my wife anymore.”
I laughed. I always laugh when a) surprised and b) buying time to make out people’s accents. He didn’t give up on me. “I’m telling you!”
“Yeah? Can I take your picture?”
In fact he wants the moment recorded for posterity, the birth of the new man. He wants the big glowing clock in the background to record the moment. He grabs a random stranger to be part of the picture, pressing him into his story rebirth from cynicism and lying into loyalty, but not actually telling him. They grin, I snap.
He’d cried three times that night, he’d told me. He hadn’t cried since his father died. Unsure what one says when the election of the first black president of the United States of America and a man so eloquent and inspiring as to put to shame two generations worth to come before him, who is overturning perhaps one of the most terrible and hated regimes of the post WWII western world reduces a middle aged black immigrant not only to sobbing but to a kind of religious remaking of character, I settle for “Wow.”
I cried when my father died too, but I also cry at particularly well produced 30 second ad spots. I didn’t cry Obama Night.
“I’ll be a better man,” he tells me again, clearly on his way to cry number four. We melted into the crowd and don’t see each other again.
Why didn’t I cry? I was still ineptly hiding my blubbering on my 4th viewing of the More Perfect Union speech. I care about race, I care about history. All the things that were moving people that night to hug and cry and whoop and honk were things that matter to me a lot, but not a tear. Nothing I can say about what happened in Harvard Square on Obama Night doesn’t sound like the Obama campaign, and that bothers me. I can say it was the kind of hope that hearing about the cure for a disease brings. Hope! Ew! I can say it wasn’t about Obama it was about the people making something different happen by their force of will, but Obama says that! No fair! If the Obama campaign detected what was out on the street and cynically used it to get elected, well, bugger.
But I’m not sure if what I saw out there will let him. There’s an old story about a group of people getting in to see FDR and laying out a proposal. It impressed him, and he advised them “Now go out there and force me to do it.” Politicians are subject to the occult forces of societies. The demons of our collective moods possess them, and the best can mold their possession into something history judges kindly, but they certainly don’t defy it. Whatever strange spirit was traveling around Harvard square wasn’t summoned by the people, it was riding them, it is riding America, not the other way around. I wonder how much the next administration can resist, and how much it would be at their peril.
By late in the evening, people have worked out how to play the car horn. Someone is honking with their own unique stuttering song. Da a a aa da da. Da a a aa da da. Da a a aa da da.
An Iraqi man grabs me from the crowd to take his picture, pointing at a button on his chest that says “Iraqis for Obama”, he asks me to not put his face in the picture. I pause. “I don’t think it matters anymore.” We both hesitate, realizing that really, something has changed. I take the picture, button, hands, and face.