Obama! Yes We CAN

I feel like a long time voter because of all the California propositions and local elections I’ve participated in, but actually this was only my third presidential election. Both of my first two elections were sorely disappointing; I didn’t particularly like either candidate and ended up voting Green, aware that in a sense my vote had no meaning. This year, however, I voted Democratic with genuine gusto. While the experience was a little less exciting than physically going down to the high school to cast my ballot, Juan and I made sure three times over that we were registered absentee and sent in our ballots as soon as they arrived in the mail two months ago.
Over the past four months we’ve watched the overseas Obama campaign being run out of the White Trash Fast Food—the restaurant where we work. An African American jazz and blues musician who goes by the name of Daddy Hemmingway worked day in and day out to register overseas Americans to vote. Each day he had an enormous Obama banner flying behind him and pasty white Democratic expatriates in front of him. For Berlin, American or not, I had the distinct feeling that there was no other candidate besides Obama. Even those I might consider to be more conservative Germans seemed to shudder at the idea of McCain. When Obama spoke in July in Berlin, over 200,000 people gathered to hear his historic speech and when we listened to him accept the president-elect, we let out a holler when he mentioned our city!
There has never been a candidate that I’ve liked as much as Obama, even though I don’t think of him as a messiah nor do I believe he is as radical as I wish he could be. But I certainly like him, think he’s a great speaker and an incredibly smart man. Additionally, I have never before felt such fascination with his wife and kids – I almost feel myself falling into celebrity worship akin to that of Princess Di (which I never shared). I love Michelle Obama. I love the “royal” family. It makes me grin just to think about it. Like no other single African American politician has been able to do before—no matter how high a position of power, their family as a whole is in the world spotlight. Having a healthy happy black family in the white house is a symbol so great and powerful and … in truth, an instant change in how Americans conceptualize race.
The night of the election—the votes started rolling in around midnight our time—I was working at the White Trash Restaurant with Juan, as I had been four years ago in that terrible and unbelievable loss. I admit I had to maintain an ounce of cynicism; two elections before I had been so hopeful and both times was emotionally crushed at the outcome. The night was packed—packed with Americans and Europeans of all types who gathered around the TV sets to watch the results.
There are subtle bits of body language that people use to create a feeling of who is in and who is out, especially in a time when people want to share a sense of unity around one issue. This is our election, this is my country, this is our history. Throughout the night I kept feeling getting the impression from my American customers that I wasn’t one of them. It often happens that my customers at White Trash think that I’m German because I generally greet them in German and then wait to see which language they’d prefer to speak. For a non-German, my German accent is pretty convincing. And even when I then speak to them in English they sometimes have a hard time believing that I’m American. I’m used to it, but that night I felt particularly sensitive. It was a kind of metaphor that night to feel on the one hand, on the outside—not a resident of America—and on the other hand, wanting terribly to be recognized for my American-ness. I felt the need to tell several people, I’m American; I care just as much about this election as you do.
When Juan and I were finally off work that night, and able to sit down at around 2:30 or 3:00 in the morning, it was perfect timing. The US map was already filling up with red and blue and we were surrounded by other American and German employees of White Trash, including the American owner, Wally Potts. There was an electricity of excitement in the room, but when the electoral votes passed the 270 mark, it appeared almost too easy … we watched it happen but we really couldn’t believe that it could possibly mean that Obama had won. The last two presidential elections had seemed so difficult that we were still cynical! But then suddenly McCain was conceding his loss (eloquently, I may add) and the next thing we knew, there was our smart, well-spoken, and REAL (in spirit, in physicality) president-elect bringing us to tears as he accepted victory at about 6:30 in the morning, our time. I know it couldn’t have been the same in Germany as it would have been in Chicago or any number of small towns across the United States, but at the same time, I really did feel the sense of community around me and mutual happiness among friends, American and German alike, as we sat together in the White Trash.
The only thing I couldn’t help but notice, however, was how the Germans around me winced at the reciting of the words “yes, we can” that echoed across Grant Park in a call and response style with Obama. I think it makes them nervous to hear so many people chanting behind a national leader. The person next to me said, I feel like I’m in church. Frankly, the chanting surprised me, too. As a long-time demonstration-attending activist, I’ve chanted my heart out, but it’s always seemed to be admonished by the general public. It seems that from the mainstream media perspective, chanting is left to fascists, “radical” lefty activists, gospel churches, and the voices of persons of so-called “minority status”—laborers, farm workers, unionists. But the American Democratic Party? I could hardly believe my ears.


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