This article first appeared in the Sunday Herald, on November 9, 2008.
By nine o’clock in the morning, there were no newspapers to be found on the South side of Chicago. Glenn Harrell had been searching for one in his minicab, stopping between fares at petrol stations and corner shops, hoping to pick up a Chicago Sun-Times with Barack Obama’s face on the front cover and a headline that said it all: Mr President.
There were no Tribunes or Defenders either, nothing but a week-old Chicago Reader. It too had Obama on the first page, a cartoon drawn before election day. Don’t Screw This Up, it read. His historic triumph had consigned it to the dustbin, although come to think of it, maybe the editor’s nervousness was worth keeping, as a reminder that what now seems pre-ordained was once considered impossible.
Even the house copies at the L&G diner on East 75th street had gone missing. Waitress Millie Slaughter mocked her regulars from behind the counter: “You need to get your ass up earlier.” Harrell smiled at the abuse. “Last night was astronomical in itself, but to wake up and not be able to find a morning newspaper is mind-boggling,” he said. “I see people walking down the street with ten under their arm.”
The Obama merchandise industry is recession-proof. At his victory party in Grant Park, badges, t-shirts and posters sold rapidly. Many were old campaign season stock but enough entrepreneurs had displayed more confidence than the average heartbroken Democrat to meet demand for Yes We Did and I Was There memorabilia.
It felt like a rock concert, although no band ever inspired so many people of all ages and races to shout and hug and cry uncontrollably. Rosaria Turner had come with her father on his 80th birthday. “We’re talking about a man from Jackson, Mississippi, who remembers being asked ‘How many bubbles in a bar of soap?’ when he wanted to vote. So this is a wonderful statement about this country,” she told me.
Cynthia Henderson had brought her daughter Imani, a teenage volunteer. “We’ve worked so hard, prayed so hard and we are so proud of America,” she said. “I think about my grandmother and Obama’s grandmother, advocating for good weather and watching over us.” It was a freakishly warm, clear evening.
Theodora Rose wept beneath her baseball cap. The mascara ran down her face as she pumped her fist in the air. “You have to have lived through what I’ve lived through to feel it,” she said. “I’m sixty-four years old and I’ve seen some hard times and I remember them saying A Change Is Gonna Come and this is that change.” It is telling that Sam Cooke’s civil rights anthem is absent from the Obama rally playlist. The struggle it evokes is too painful, too black. Move On Up is the preferred tone of optimism.
Mary-Jo Reis, a forty-something white woman with bottle blonde hair, held Rose as if they were old friends. “I’m so glad it’s an African-American man, because that’s what this country needs,” she said. “They are redeemed, they’re not gonna be oppressed any more.” The assumption that Obama will somehow wipe the slate is a terrible burden, but his own rather grave acceptance speech aside, it was no night for cold realism.
Chicago is a shockingly segregated city. Whites largely stay north of the downtown loop, Latinos settle in the western neighbourhoods. Hyde Park, where the Obamas live, is a pocket of integration in the black south side. Deep social and economic inequalities and the heartfelt racial resentment that comes with them are right there on his doorstep.
Hyde Park was full of television crews all week. But just a mile further out, in South Shore, where Michelle Obama grew up, the streets were deserted. Down by the railway tracks on East 71st there was no visible indication that the nation had changed overnight.
I rang the bell at Guyse Salon, where six African-American women were having their hair done. The owner, Edna Guyse, opened the door, but only as wide as she could fill with her tough, septuagenarian frame. It took a while to talk my way in. She couldn’t describe how Obama’s victory made her feel without bursting into tears, because her sister died a month ago and never got to see it.
Isabelle Orr was seated at the steamer, a plastic bowl over her tight grey curls. When she moved to Chicago from Missouri in the early 1950s she came on a Greyhound bus where the back row was reserved for blacks but “if white people got on, you had to give up your seat.” She had spent election day fasting and praying at her church. “We pray to keep him safe. Because the rest, he can take care of.”
She believed Obama’s mixed race heritage would enable him to unite the country. “I think of him as a little half-white boy, the smartest boy I’ve seen since John F Kennedy,” she said. “He has gone beyond the civil rights years. He will be a great president for the people – not just one race of people but for everybody. What makes him so special is that he doesn’t have the racial biases and hate that other people have.”
Edna recommended a restaurant and told me which streets to avoid. I later discovered that a man had been shot nearby two days earlier. There were so many school shootings this summer – sixteen in three weeks – that the Governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, declared violent crime out of control. “In certain communities in the city of Chicago, it is reaching epidemic proportions,” he said. All but one of the murder victims was black or Hispanic.
Nationally, black men are six times as likely to go to prison as white men and three times more likely to be unemployed. Whereas Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton would raise these appalling disparities with an understandable degree of anger, Obama has deliberately avoided the rhetoric of racial grievance.
In June, he cast high school drop-out rates as a failure of collective responsibility. African-American fathers, he said “have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men.” This went down well with conservatives, but less so with civil rights veterans. Not realising a microphone at Fox News was live, Jackson laid into Obama, saying he wanted to “cut his nuts out” for blaming social problems on the very people suffering from lack of opportunity, discrimination and neglect.
In the L&G diner, Jackson’s tears at Obama’s acceptance speech received little sympathy. “He poured lemon juice in his eye,” suggested Millie Slaughter. Robert Daugherty’s cynicism was absolute. “This is the most prejudiced country in the world” he said, explaining that McCain had deliberately lost the election so that Republicans would not have to deal with the broken economy.
“Rich people’s hand in the cookie jar and poor people can’t even smell the crumbs,” Slaughter told me. She believed Obama would change that. “He can do this – Bing!” She waved an invisible wand to fix some unspecified problem, then another “Bing! Bing! This man is gonna do something, for everybody.” The weight of expectation is crushing.
The diner’s owner was reluctant to let me leave without an escort. Reverend Harrell, a taxi-driving Baptist minister who keeps two copies of the King James Bible in the seat pockets, took me on a neighbourhood tour.
“White America does not want to perceive him as an African-American president,” Harrell reckoned. “But he needs to do enough to convince people in our community who said ‘he was never one of us to begin with.’ So it’s a tightrope he has to walk. I tell people ‘don’t fool yourself – the majority of his cabinet is going to be white.’”
At Moo & Oink, a butcher that sells turkey tails, pork neckbones and chitterlings in bulk, Loretta Johnson said she had witnessed Obama’s ascent in a vision. “I am seventy-seven years old. We have been downcast for so long. Now the whole world can see that we speak one language of righteousness, truthfulness and faith.”
We passed gangs of young men selling drugs on the corner. Older men drank from brown paper bags. At the Illinois Department of Employment Security, a depressingly full dole office, Prince Alyyah had picked up his cheque. “Martin Luther King said we as a people will get there. He was speaking of the black people. Obama is talking about America. He is not just the black president. He is president of the United States.”
Looking out of the window, I noticed that a stretch of East 71st street had been renamed Emmett Till Road, in honour of the Chicago teenager who was beaten, shot and thrown into the Tallahatchie River with barbed wire around his neck for talking to a white woman in Mississippi. An all-white jury acquitted his killers, who later admitted their crime to a journalist without showing any remorse.
This happened just fifty-three years ago. Viewed in this context, Obama’s election is proof of one profound generational shift in racial tolerance after another. Residents of the south side of Chicago still have worse schools, worse hospitals, fewer jobs, fewer services and vastly more violent streets than their white neighbours to the north. Racism is still openly expressed and subconsciously acted on in both communities. But look how far we’ve come.
In the speech on race that Jeremiah Wright’s sermons compelled him to deliver, Obama acknowledged the impossibility of healing divisions rooted in slavery. “Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naive as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle,” he said. On his strikingly sunny first day as president elect, it felt like a giddy country expected nothing less.