(A guest-written narrative with photos, by Teju Cole.)
It was a small village in southern Germany. It was a summer’s day. From an old turreted tower, on the green hill that was separated from the village by a sluggish river, the sound of bells negotiated the afternoon. I was drowsy in that carillon sound, looking out a window that framed the hill, and it seemed as though the sound came from all the green hill and not just its tower. Then the window suddenly shuttered, and I woke up in a darkened room in Brooklyn. The bells continued a few seconds more, until I reached across to the dresser and silenced them. The clock said 5. I had gone to bed with my mind on James Baldwin: somewhere, he tells the story of traveling into a small Swiss village that had never seen a black man. In the strange logic of dreams, Switzerland had become Germany, and Germany had dissolved into Brooklyn on the morning of November 4.
I padded around the house so as not to rouse my wife. I made the last of the coffee her uncle, a kind-hearted Jesuit in Pune, had sent us, and prepared the things I was taking to the polling place with me: ID card, camera, voter registration. I returned to the bedroom and asked my wife for whom I should vote. Flipping her pillow round to its cooler side, more or less still asleep, she said I should return home immediately should Obama lose. She feared riots; but it would be unlike me, she knew, to avoid one.
It was still dark when I stepped outside the house. The first faint pink traces of daylight were beginning to smudge the sky above the park opposite our place. I walked up to 6th Avenue, then the six short blocks to 50th Street. The neighborhood, through which I had walked countless times in daytime and at night, was different at first light. There was a light coating of frost on the cars, and the houses had a Georgian aspect, an air of Bloomsbury gentility. On each block, I saw one person or two, out early, sober and fitted for the yards of work. Two Chinese women rolled a cart across the street, fussing over its load: aluminum cans that they had spent the night collecting and sorting into large bags. The women were as habituated to the hour as I was a stranger to it.
The polling station, a high school, had just opened. There were five or ten people crowding at the door, but each showed a registration card and was swiftly ushered in by the uniformed police officers. I smiled when I saw the name tag of one of the officers. I said, “Florida. That’s an auspicious name on a day like this, officer.” It was 6:10 am, and he was not in the mood. Voting was easy: antiquated-looking levers and knobs which I soon figured out how to work. The poll workers outside argued in Chinese. I voted straight Democratic as planned, except for where I had the choice to select Working Families. I was done in five minutes: it felt like something accomplished, something weighty, and also like some stubborn pride finally released. I was part of the system now. I was moved to see the hall filled with my neighbors, at this hour, some of them with young children, pursuing that vague ideal called "civic duty." When else, I tried to remember, would people willingly gather like this without the promise of entertainment, religion or money? By the time I came out of the building, day had fallen fast, light had spread across the sky. I walked through the quiet streets, picked up some breakfast rolls at the Mexican panaderia, and headed back to the apartment.
I lay in bed and was soon asleep. A text from a friend woke me up at 10: “It’s a beautiful day. The ancestors are smiling.” It felt true. I switched on the television, looked at early voting reports on MSNBC and CNN, but that all felt false, and I switched it off. I intended to head out later, and I decided to pass the next few hours in solitude and silence, bracing myself, trying not to admit to the nervousness I felt about the outcome of the election. Later, making lunch, I read some sections of Derek Walcott’s long poem, The Arkansas Testament. I heard in my mind’s ear the troubled and beautiful rhythms, heard a meditation on being present to a place and unwelcome in it. I caught my breath especially sharply at some lines late in the poem, lines that seemed exact to the moment:
And afternoon sun will reprint
the bars of a flag whose cloth
over motel, steeple and precinct
must heal the stripes and the scars.
In the late afternoon, when I finally left the apartment again, my neighborhood in Brooklyn was quiet. There were no signs of the absorption and jitteriness that seemed to have seized hold of me and many of my friends. It was business as usual: the men lounging outside the minicab office, the Dominican restaurant, the Mexican remittance agency. The day, warm for the time of year, had been overcast and was now beginning to darken. I took the N-train to Union Square, to pick up a lens for my camera. Walking down 18th, sometime around 5, I felt the strangeness of time, the way one sometimes does. Soon, I knew, there would be some kind of permanent change in the collective psyche. And yet, at that precise moment, it was still hovering out of reach, this knowledge we all hungered for, like a cookie jar stashed on a high shelf. Time was like an expert card trick, a bait and switch invisible to the naked eye. I saw quiet anticipation in the faces that blurred past me in both directions. In the elevator of the camera store, a FedEx delivery man was speaking to one of the employees. He said, “I just don’t think that was necessary.” The employee said, “It was funny though.” The FedEx guy shook his head, “No, it was cruel. She already made a fool of herself, all by her own self. No need for prank calls.”
He was muscular and short-statured. Outside, next to his truck, I asked him if he thought Governor Palin would return in 2012. “I don’t think so,” he said, “they’ll use her and toss her away. Anyway, it’s not my problem.” But did the elections hold any special significance for him? “I’m thirty-seven years old,” he said, “I’ve never voted before. I’ve been waiting my whole life for this, for the opportunity to vote the way I did today.” A large statement, but more astonishing because of how common it was. It was true for me, too, in a way. I thought I had strong rational reasons for having opted out of all the elections for which I’d been eligible since 1992. But something not strictly rational was responsible for the pragmatic turn now in my thinking. Something had driven me to the polls that hadn’t been there before. If I still prided myself on being skeptical of mass hysteria, I had added to it something else: the idea that participation, rational or otherwise, mattered. I had voted not because my doing so could change the outcome, but because voting would change me. Already, like a mutation that happens quietly on a genetic level and later completely alters the body’s function, I could feel my relationship to other Americans changing. I had a sense—dubious to me for so long, and therefore avoided—of common cause. And not only with the millions of strangers who had pulled levers, filled in sheets and touched screens that day, people like the black FedEx guy, but also with particular public figures like James Baldwin, John Coltrane, Philip Roth and Carolyn Heilbrun, as well as with personal friends in the city and elsewhere. Assorted characters who had in common only the accident of citizenship. I was a part of them in a new way.
This edifice threatens to collapse under its own weight. All these generalizations and self-contradictions are part of the empty rhetoric I hate about politics. Can those quickly flipped levers really mean so much? Don't I basically prefer things that have no meaning? The conflict was present in my mind as I got back on the train and headed midtown, to Rockefeller Center. My spiritual practice, to the extent that I have one, takes seriously the idea that one should avoid false refuge. The idea that change, in its most elemental form, could come from without, was offensive to me. And yet, I felt different for having sullied my pristine record with partisanship. I felt healthier. That, I realized, was the nub of the thing: I had been trying to stay pure, to have the correct idea, and had made the best the enemy of the good. Now voting for Obama, in spite of my strong objections both to some of his ideas and to much of the system in which he functioned, was a declaration, mostly to myself, that we participate in things not because they are ideal but because they are not.
Rockefeller Center was wretched. In the maze of underground passages leading up from the subway to 47th street, there was a large glass-fronted shoe-shine place. I saw four pink-faced men seated in a row, and four red-jacketed brown-faced men stooped over cleaning the shoes on their feet. Then came the plaza itself, brilliantly lit, full of tourists and hawkers, and in one section, television broadcasters. The ice-rink was being prepared as a giant map of the country. Around its rectangular perimeter was an unbroken rank of American flags. Red and blue lights played over the flags, and onto the skyscrapers around, and the effect was like the toothache one gets from chewing ice. Mascots in donkey or elephant costume mugged for photos, and workers on scaffolds put the names of the presidential candidates into place. What was it that was damaged in my brain, that reading a Caribbean poet on a grim journey made me feel more American, but a flag-filled funhouse of a city block provoked me to anger? I walked away from 47th, onto the Avenue of the Americas, northwards, alongside the solid and unblinking many-eyed bank buildings, until I came to Central Park South and 59th street, then west to Columbus Circle, which was desolate and rather beautiful. I put Nayyara Noor's Aaj bazaar mein, a ghazal written by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, into my ipod. I went into the subway and took the A-train.
Harlem was where I would find whatever it was I was looking for tonight. In The Fire Next Time, a slim volume he published in 1965, Baldwin had noted the following:
“I remember when the ex-Attorney General, Mr. Robert Kennedy, said it was conceivable that in 40 years in America we might have a Negro President. That sounded like a very emancipated statement to white people. They were not in Harlem when this statement was first heard. They did not hear the laughter and bitterness and scorn with which this statement was greeted.... We were here for 400 years and now he tells us that maybe in 40 years, if you are good, we may let you become President."
Forty years put us at 2005. This was year forty-three, around 8 in the evening, and the result was still in doubt. The Harlem-bound A was peculiar. Never before, on countless trips between 59th and 125th, had I seen so many white people on it. It was one of the simplest anthropological gestures in the city: entering a train and seeing who gets on and gets off where. The A-train, the D, the 7 to Queens: folks generally went with their own kind. The mass exodus of Chinese at Grand Street, the Indians in Jackson Heights, the Poles and Russians in Bay Ridge. On most days, there was nothing but black people at the 125th street stop. This evening, I saw blond boys in Obama shirts, russet-haired pale-skinned women with camera equipment, and Asian hipsters in skinny jeans. My disappointment deepened, not on the bus across from St Nicholas to Lenox, which was all black, but at the Lenox Lounge which, for the evening, seemed to have been taken over by white people with expensive-looking Canons and Nikons. A man with a large video camera marked with a Reuters sticker wandered around, getting footage of the few locals in attendance.
My mood soon improved, with the arrival of a Sugar Hill lager, and my dinner: catfish stuffed with shrimp, and a side of collard greens and yams. Some friends I had arranged to meet soon arrived, as did more local color. These latter I searched for signs of “laughter and bitterness and scorn,” but things had perhaps changed since Baldwin's prediction. The dominant registers were deep seriousness and muted festivity. Before long, more than half of the people in the bar were African-American, some dressed for the occasion in Afrocentric clothes. The man from Reuters had by then wandered off in search of blacker pasture. The television was set to CNN.
Soon, cheers began to ring out intermittently in the Lounge, as polls closed and states were called. Throaty boos greeted McCain’s predictable victories in Southern states. The evening was long, like a cup final that lacked the fire and character of qualifying rounds. For the first few hours, there were no surprises. Blue stayed blue, and red remained red. Then, in the kind of flurry that seems disorienting at the time, and even more out of focus later on, Ohio and Pennsylvania were called. Big cheers. A gambler, by then, could have put everything on an Obama win. Still, it wasn’t sinking in. Everyone was expecting dirty tricks, something untoward and unexpected, a Bradley-effect for the ages. No one relaxed. At ten minutes to 11, Virginia was called. That was the biggest cheer of the evening. I immediately thought of my friend Peter, who had put in long hours canvassing for Obama in that state. The minutes that followed found me trying and failing to both stay focused on the numbers on the screen, as well as on the mental calculations of where the math now stood. Just as I was reaching the conclusion that, with sure-fire blue California added to the present tally, Obama would have five votes over the necessary 270, I saw CNN flash the graphic announcing, “Barack Obama, Projected Winner, President.” That was it. It was all over.
Screams tore through the air. What does catharsis sound like? The shouts rose like a wave from us, and slammed down back on us, rose again, slammed down again. Instantly, several people began to weep. A middle-aged woman grabbed me in a tight embrace and cried, “Thank you Jesus, thank you Jesus.” I forced my way outside. A pair of young women held each others' hands and jumped up and down. Shouts, as though they were signals thrown across a valley, bounced from one end of the night air to another. I began to run across Lenox Avenue, towards Adam Clayton Powell, and I was almost hit by a speeding cab. The driver screeched to a halt, and rolled down his window. He grinned, and extended his hand. “We did it!” he said, “I don’t know how, but we did it!”
What was not known a few hours before was now irrevocably known. Those ten minutes, between 11 and 11.10 were of a surreal intensity I will never forget as long as I live. Thousands of people, as though out of thin air, suddenly converged at 125th street and Adam Clayton Powell. The TV screen that had been set-up there earlier had been viewed by a sparse crowd. Now, the throng was tar-thick, and there was as exuberant and unscripted an outpouring of joy as I ever expect to see anywhere. Some people had brought out drums and were playing, and the crowd danced, and laughed, and jumped over and over. Over a PA, we heard “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.” And then a brass band came through the densest part of the crowd, where there was hardly room to move, let alone dance, playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
"The purification of the emotions by vicarious experience" is how the OED defines catharsis. The word has a strong purgative association. The need for this cleansing is unquestionable, given the sheer quantity of impacted bullshit in politics. But, in that congested street corner, amid the music and happiness, my mind was already beginning to roam. I was experiencing catharsis, and running a skeptical mental commentary on it. To my own disgust, I thought of the Nuremberg rallies: a thought too far.
A makeshift stage had gone up below the giant screen, obscured from my view by the heroic statue of Adam Clayton Powell. Congressman Rangel was in attendance, as was Governor Patterson. While they spoke, laying claim in politicians' words to the moment—not entirely unfairly, since it was indeed a political moment—other claims were laid in segments of the crowd. Some people near me began to sing, “We Shall Overcome,” and it was taken up briefly by a larger group, but then abandoned. I had a sense that people were trying to find the right purchase on what was happening. Was it a civil rights moment? Was it a victory for partisan politics? Was it a racial affair?
Race loomed large. People took the stage and references were made to four hundred years of slavery, to lynchings and Jim Crow, and to the marches of the 1960s. This, the arguments said, was just like those. Someone next to me called out, “Free at last, thank God almighty we are free at last." For some, the moment was experienced with pure extroversion. For others, there was a kind of sweet wonderment and solitude inside the pressing crowd. These faces seemed to possess a quietness that seemed all the more stark in comparison to the emotionalism around them. I saw the beatific face of my friend, the great documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles, and went to greet him. I promised to come visit him soon. Maysles had followed John F. Kennedy around with a video camera during the 1960 primaries.How wondrous that here he now was, in 2008, on his own two feet, watching the success of another callow genius. I watched him for a while: he radiated light.
At length, the president-elect, the black president to be, came on the screen. Everyone screamed. He gave a workmanlike inspirational speech, full of the expected notes of unity, promises and nationalistic nonsense. Black presidents were no novelty for me. About half my life, the half I lived in Nigeria, had been spent under their rule, and in my mind, the color of the president was neither here nor there. But this was America. Race mattered. Not the facts: that Obama was not actually descended from slaves, that he was raised in a white household. The facts could be elided easily enough. Race was what mattered, race and the uses for which it was available; societal convention gave priority to his black roots over his white ones.This, I thought, was what was being misunderstood about the prospect of an Obama presidency. He wasn’t really “the first African-American” to be voted into the office, because he was African-American only in a special, and technical, sense, the same way I was African-American: a black person who held American citizenship. But the history of most blacks in this country— the history of slavery, reconstruction, systematic disenfranchisement and the civil rights movement—was not my history. My history was one of emigration, adaptation, and a different flavor of exile. I was only a latter-day sharer in the sorrow and the glory of the African-American experience.
The eagerness with which, minutes after he was declared winner of the elections, Obama was being narrated into the conventional African-American story betrayed, I thought, a longing for simplicity in the American psyche. There was a love of clear narratives and optimistic story arcs, hence, “We Shall Overcome” on the heels of a massively well-funded and astute display of machine politics.
Obama, at the core of his experience, is hybrid. For me, the significant achievement is not that, as a black man, he became president. It is that, as a certain kind of outsider American—of which the Kenyan father, Indonesian school, and biracial origin, not to mention the three non-Anglo names, are markers—he was able to work his way into the very center of American life. In other words, Obama is an avatar of a new American story, not one having to do with slave ships, nor one relying on the Mayflower, nor even the wave of poor Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrants that the country welcomed in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Obama story is the story of immigration in the age of air travel, the kind of Americanism that issues from exchange students and H1B visas and lapsed work permits. This is a form of being American that has been invisible in plain sight. His victory, I would think, should resonate even more strongly with these out-of-place characters who have been toiling in the shadows of the American story: the graduate students with funny accents, the pizza-delivery guys with no papers, Americans, regardless of color, who remember a time when they were not Americans.
This was why my American friends who had Indian parents, or Nigerian parents, or who spoke foreign languages, or identified strongly, for whatever reasons, with more than one country, would feel this win on such an essential level. This was really their victory, that to be this new kind of American was no less valuable than to be one of the old canonized varieties. An inkling, on the part of the Republicans, about this argument about hybridity, is what led to the kinds of attacks made during the campaign, all the nonsense about “pro-American” parts of the country, the talk about elitism, the insistence on mispronouncing the names of foreign countries, the pride in never having traveled. They knew, on a gut level, that it wasn’t the white and black dichotomy that was being challenged, but the idea that to be American is to be white or black. Who knew what could follow on from this murky Kenyan-Indonesian-Hawaiian-Kansan melange? They were right to be frantic. Obama had thrown open the question that a person had to be from somewhere, and successfully smuggled that question into the center of American life. The hidden code in McCain and Palin’s “Country First” was really “No hybrids please, we’re American.” It was "Old Ideas of Country First."
The message in the stunning electoral victory, then, was not that anyone could grow up to be president. It was that any hardworking, devilishly handsome and absurdly-gifted child of recent immigrants, regardless of color, might more easily negotiate the minefield of American racial politics than might perhaps an African-American of longer standing. This was what the pundits' oft-repeated “he’s not an angry black man” was all about. He did not come from slaves, and did not therefore carry the threatening rage of those who had been maimed by slavery. It was no coincidence that Barack Obama and Colin Powell, the two most popular black men in American political life, were both children of people who were not born American. Classifying them as “African-American” gave whites an opportunity for self-congratulation, and no real risk of racial backlash.
“Change!” cried out out Crazy Kev, still on the street corner on which I first saw him eight years ago. I had no change, so I gave him $5. My ruminations did not trouble my joy unduly, even if the joy itself was a simple one: the joy of being with joyful humans. Walking down 125th to Amsterdam at around 12.30 am, slowly, as the crowd loosened, then south to Columbia’s campus, I saw white college students immersing themselves in the moment as well. They trooped en masse towards Harlem, a short walk away, but an area of town most of them had, until this night, avoided. One group passing me was singing the “Star-Spangled Banner.” A few blocks up, another, smaller, group sang “America the Beautiful.” Already on the first day in the life of the new thing, the narrative was bifurcating.
The crowd had cheered with a single voice, but interpretations varied. For some whites, it was all about America and America’s greatness. For many blacks, it was a different story: a story about a racial triumph, one specifically tied to the enduring hurt of the slave trade. Yet, for all the assertion of a milestone reached, no one seemed worried that Obama’s accession to the White House left the U.S. Senate without a single black senator among its hundred members: one signal among many of how dire the racial divide remains in the country.
But I reminded myself that pragmatism had entered my life. I duly jumped into the swarm of emails and phone-calls and text messages. I understood the shaking, the weeping, the trembling; I had a share in it. I remembered Faiz's words: "Let us go to the bazaar today in chains/ let's go with hands waving/ intoxicated and dancing/ let's go with dust on our heads and blood on our sleeves" and felt an immense gratitude that in some small symbolic way, I had participated in releasing the country from the rule of Bush and Cheney. These men had polluted the world, and Obama’s victory was a rebuke to them. It was a rebuke heard around the world, even if Obama’s own political ethos still remained beholden to aggressive consumerism and militarism. Things would begin to get better a little bit at a time. The healing of “the stripes and scars” could commence. The world would surely change. The bells were already ringing.
No, no, the world would do no such thing: power would eternally perpetuate itself. Greed would still ride roughshod over everything, and money and ego would still poison brother against brother. That was what reality actually looked like. The world would not revise itself: I would. I had. Reading Walcott against the basic sense of his poem, I told myself that November 4th 2008 had rewritten some part of me, and that was what mattered. What is written over is less pure, less pristine. What a wonderful sight, that the self as palimpsest, the unclear narrative, and the man from nowhere, were now at the center of this lineage-crazed nation. I got on the train from 116th street for the long journey back to Brooklyn, surrounded by curiously sedate passengers, as though for them the celebrations above ground were taking place on another planet. My wife who was sleeping when I got home, whom I’d last seen before I knew what I now knew, was somehow able to murmur, when I slipped into bed, “Welcome home, Mr President.” And that was true, too.