The camera cut back to her at least half a dozen times. Although there were certainly thousands of people in the Pepsi Center, she seemed to be all alone, standing above the fray, peering down upon it in wonder. What had once seemed unimaginable was now a done deal– Barack Obama, the junior Senator from Illinois, had been formally nominated as the Democratic candidate for President of the United States of America. For those who had been wary of some misguided coup attempt by Hillary Clinton (and I was certainly in that group), breathing was easier once again as we realized she’d just wanted to have at least some symbolic share of this historic moment.
But even as thousands celebrated, the camera could not stay away from the lady in the stands. I do not know her age, although I would guess around sixty or so, but the look in her eyes spoke of many years past. She did not clap or wave, but held her hands clasped tightly together in front of her. I never saw her yell or scream; in fact, her lips did not move, save a slight quivering that, given the mistiness of her eyes, was an indication of her determination to hold her emotions in check.
I wonder what she was thinking? I imagined that it was my mother standing there; would she remember that day in 1969 when she came home from school, told me to put on shoes, then took me back to Aliceville Elementary School so I could see the tank parked in front of it? Would she remember the National Guardsmen who stood in the hallways, rifles at their sides, ordered to that institution of learning to ensure integration happened without violence?
I imagined my father in the lady’s place. Would he remember walking five miles to little Eatman school, having to literally cross the Sipsey River on his journey? Would he remember hauling pulpwood for two dollars a day, which was a huge step up from what he would make picking cotton? Would he remember his oldest sister, Aunt Catherine, giving up on her own college education, choosing instead to leave Stillman College, coming home and running the household so that the rest of her siblings could follow their educational dreams?
I imagined my Aunt Bess standing there. If she were still alive, would she think about Uncle Walter, who spent decades planting, tending, and picking cotton in those vast fields that did not belong to him? And would she recall that after Uncle Walter’s death, how the owner refused to let the family back onto the land, even though our family reunions had been held there around that boat well for twenty years, and the two ramshackle houses that had sheltered at least four generations were still standing? We wanted nothing but our memories; we had no claim to the millions of dollars that those fields had yielded, but since the owner had no obligation to allow us on the land, she saw no reason to.
And I imagined my late mother-in-law, Mattie Wilder Gay, standing there. If she were alive, she would be about the age of that lady. Would she have remembered the nights driving home from civil rights rallies and SCLC meetings? Would she have thought about the time someone followed her, and she feared that she might soon share the fate of Medgar Evers or Emmitt Till? Would she have remembered tirelessly registering Black people in the Alabama Black Belt to vote, an effort she surely would have doubled or tripled in support of Barack Obama’s unprecedented candidacy?
I do not know what the lady was thinking, but as the camera insisted, again and again, upon sharing such a personal moment, her eyes unmasked what was at once joy, wonder, and thanksgiving. I was born in 1964, less than a year after the assassination of President Kennedy. I did not see the dogs or firehoses, but maybe she did. I cannot recall the abject despair that must have engulfed the Black community when Martin Luther King, Jr., was gunned down, but maybe she can. I was not attacked on the Edmund Pettis Bridge, but maybe she was. And I have never been denied the right to vote, eat at a restaurant, or sit in the seat of my choice on a bus, but maybe, just maybe, she has.
In that moment, as the camera kept returning to her poignant visage, that Black lady, whomever she was, became Every(Black)man. There are so many who literally gave their lives for oppotunities much less grand than this one. They merely wanted to vote in peace, eat at the same counter, and have some semblance of a fair chance in this American Dream. If only they could have been there on August 27, 2008, as the deafening, soaring symphony of “Aye” acclaimed that Barack Obama, a Black man in these United States of America, had ascended to the very doorstep of a house built largely by African slaves, and which has symbolized, for over 200 years, a level of power and prestige only attainable –no, only imaginable, by White men.
As the lady stood silently, watching the unabashed joy unfolding below, I wonder what she was thinking?