Tears of Hope: Obama and Personal Politics
Joel A. Lewis
Although I have worked with the Democratic Party over half of my life, I hold no illusions about the progressive nature of most Democratic leaders. That being said, I am still walking on Cloud 9 since the election. I've heard people try to describe this (perhaps naïve) euphoria in a number of ways: it is like a bad dream (or trip) that has finally come to an end; it is like seeing a fresh dawn with new and vibrant colors; it is like that day- after "perma-grin" you can't wipe from your face after an evening with your lover. For me the experience is a little more personal: it is the tears of hope that my little brothers shed on November 4th.
Ok, so here is the thing. Prior to 1996, I came from the most typical "progressive white" family in the most typical "progressive white" town you can find in Mid-Michigan. I felt rather enlightened with my Greenpeace bumper stickers, a tattered Emma Goldman reader, and my anti-swastika tattoo. I was a mid-90s punk who thought he knew it all. But then Jacob and Jordan came along and my world got flipped upside down.
My parents, like many I knew, were struggling with empty-nest syndrome. Raising children was their life and now that their boys were all grown up (although admittedly still living in their garage apartment), the only sane solution seemed to be to get some more. So along came the adoption and a new chapter for the Lewis family, only this half of the book was not quite as white… Yeah that's right, we were adding two black characters to this overly-white cast in an overly-white town.
At first, my little brothers simply added fuel to my arrogantly progressive stature. I kept pictures of them tucked away in my wallet right next to my ACLU membership card and took every opportunity to show off my enlightened lefty credentials. We were the face of what I thought America should look like.
As the years went on, I filled their bedroom with posters of the Black Panthers and slipped in some light readings from Malcolm X and Che Guevara on their bookshelf next to their Dr. Suess books. They got in trouble in elementary school for teaching the white kids on the playground to put their fists in the air and declare "All Power to the People" to the recess attendants.
Along with their Justin Timberlake albums, I gave them daily doses of Public Enemy and old-school ska to give them some radical, racial rooting. At family events they would get relatives fired up as they went on silly tirades about how "Jesus was a Black Man!" They made professors I introduced them to grin as they ramble on about Comrade Lenin, even though they were only in the 4th grade.
In reality, they had become my little experiments in radical multi-racial socialization and I was proud about all of the things I was teaching them. That is, until the 2008 election rolled around.
As November 4th approached, family conversation about politics revolved around foreign policy, the economic crisis, and alternative fuels. When these topics came up, Jacob and Jordan suddenly seemed silent. Obama was definitely the favored candidate for our family, but our conversations didn't seem important to them. At first I just dismissed it as teenage apathy and that their minds were probably too concerned with dances, dating and sports to care. I couldn't have been more wrong.
November 4th gave me knots in my stomach. I couldn't stop thinking of the disappointments and anxiety of the last two elections. I had flashbacks of sitting glued to the television for days wondering what the final outcome would be. When CNN declared Obama the winner and McCain conceded, I thought I was in a dream land. My fiancé Libby and I cracked open a bottle of champagne in our basement, shed a few tears, and waited patiently for Obama's speech to begin.
Within minutes of Obama's speech beginning, my mother called me in tears of joy. She said, "This is like my childhood dreams of the 1968 election coming true if Bobby Kennedy had not been killed." She said my brothers were up too, watching the speech, and that Jordan wanted to talk to me.
When he got on the phone, Jordan was sobbing like a small child. I asked if he was okay and he promptly replied, "I guess a black man really can do anything in America! Do you think I can be President?"
At that moment, my years of liberal illusion were shattered. Jordan cut right through all of my arguments about policies and perceptions of America and personalized the entire election for me. This was a jaded kid who had always been cynical about politics and his future who was now weeping with tears of hope and aspiration. He was a typical teenage jock who shows no emotion now bearing his soul to me. This election wasn't just about policy, it really was about hope! The rhetoric wasn't empty; this was Jordan's new reality. Obama's words had literally turned Jordan's world upside-down and now this kid, my little brother, was already dreaming of walking down this newly-blazed path.
The next day I pulled out my "Proud To Be An American" baseball cap and wore it all day, sharing Jordan's story with all of my students. A number of them, including hardcore McCain supporters, got a little teary-eyed that day in class as I passed on this story of a previously disillusioned African-American teen who was now filled with hope.
A few weeks later as I was walking down the streets of Boston at night, I saw an old homeless African-American woman standing on a street corner surrounded by young white students from Boston College. I stopped for a moment to see what this was all about. The woman was giving an old-school street corner speech to these kids about politics and Obama and they were actually listening. She stated, "You kids think you know something about America and black people? Obama is going to make sure you get it!"
Her speech made me smile and I gave Jordan a quick call to share what I had just witnessed. He giggled a little and said, "Do you get it now?"
Yes Jordan, for the first time in my life, I think I am starting to get it. For years I thought I was teaching you things, but now it looks like it is time for you and Obama to teach me a few things about life.
Let me know when you are ready for us to start working on that campaign, young President Lewis!
Joel A. Lewis is an historian of transnationalism, US foreign policy, and anti-fascist movements. He has written a little book "Youth Against Fascism" and is working on a number of other research projects involving folk music, Scottish nationalism, and the punk generation. His electric blue universe revolves around youth politics, shooting stars, Pabst Blue Ribbon, his lil' froggy Biscuit; and his beautiful BearzZz, the artist Libby Booth.