I’m kind of lost for words to describe this moment in American history. The joy that came last night when Barack Obama was announced the 44th President of the US was followed by a bit of disbelief as I got out of bed. After voting very early in the morning, I travelled to Chester, Pennsylvania to aid Obama’s ground operations in an effort to get out the vote. I had been to Chester a month earlier to sign up unregistered voters as the deadline drew near. Both of my experiences in this town were moving to say the least. It really isn’t until one engages with the people of a community quite so eonomically different from their own, that one can really even begin to understand what it’s like for them.
The city of Chester has great American history. It was first settled in 1645. The oldest public building still in use in this country is actually in Chester. Obama’s town headquarters is located directly opposite this building. It’s surreal to take a good look around and see what has happened. These structures have all the familiar feel of the colonial buildings that I grew up around in Philadelphia. The difference is that these buildings feel like they belong to the set of a post-apocalyptic sc-fi film in which people have been suddenly evacuated. The vibe is almost like an urban area 51. This was as picturesque as Chester got. Chester seems to be a place that utterly lacks opportunity. The average house hold lives well below what is considered the poverty level. Almost all of the factory doors that once provided jobs have long been closed. There are simply no opportunities. The town has been plagued with understandable drug and violence issues that come as a result of this kind of economic loss.
I went door to door in areas in which only two out of ten houses on a block might be inhabited. The vast majority of the population here is African American. I saw and I heard things that I have only read about or seen in passing. One person shouted out their window, telling me that they weren’t allowed to vote because they had been a recently released felon. My heart sank a little bit when I told him that he absolutely was allowed to vote, and that it was his right in the state of PA. Another person had asked me if they could vote, because they hadn’t participated in the primary. And yet another questioned whether or not they were allowed to vote for a Democrat because they were a registered Republican. This kind of disinformation is hard to understand. I saw children in diapers answering the front door when I knocked. I met children who looked at me with complete suspicion about my being in their neighborhood. I saw several graffiti murals dedicated to the young life of a fallen fellow gang member. I saw boarded up home after home after home. There were stray animals walking around looking for scraps.
And though I had been reminded by a few people that I certainly hadn’t put myself in the safest of positions, I had the power of one word on my side, “Obama.” The goal was to register voters and then get them to the polls. People who would otherwise have no reason to believe in government or even the democratic right to vote often smiled and thanked me for knocking on their door. They came out in record numbers and that is truly worth something. For the most part, I felt that my two days spent in Chester were color blind in how my fellow person interacted with me. I don’t know if tomorrow or the day after would be the same. Perhaps I would be less welcome. The entire experience makes me very aware that we do not have racial equality in this country. There will almost certainly be those who use this great victory to call the playing field equal, I do not believe it is.
Though we did make history. Now we know that we can do more than “hope”. We have reason to believe. Not just for the color of his skin but also for his honorable tireless campaign that has worked to unify us all, I am proud to call Barack Obama our next president. And furthermore, I believe last night was probably the most patriotic evening I’ll ever know; one in which I can proudly say I am glad to be an American. Yes we did.