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Editorial / Periscope - Niall O'Dowd
A Night to Remember
November 12, 2008
Periscope by Niall O'Dowd
IT is doubtful The Economist magazine has many subscribers in Harlem, but the black man selling copies on the corner of 125th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard was doing a roaring trade on Election Night.
The front cover with a striking photograph of Barack Obama and the headline “It’s Time” was clearly the draw, and dozens of those present were waving the magazine in joy and jubilation as the results poured in.
On a hastily constructed stage, one two-bit politician after another tried to grab their moment in the limelight. They could have been from Timbuktu for all the crowd cared. They had eyes only for the giant screen showing the election results.
They were nervous. Not until Pennsylvania was called for Obama and the map turned the state bright blue from neutral grey did the revelers begin to relax. For some the tension was still almost too much.
Essie Hayes, 37, who works with Viacom and lived nearby, was alternately “anxious, nervous, shaking,” she told me.
She confessed she had not slept for several nights worrying about this night of nights. She remembered what happened in 2000 when Al Gore had victory snatched away, and was afraid of a recurrence.
She had also doubted that America would elect a black man and feared for Obama’s safety. Now that the story was unfolding in front of her eyes she was starting to believe.
“This is for my mom,” she said softly, her face suddenly solemn. “She grew up in South Carolina in the 1920s when segregation was everywhere. She shed her blood, sweat and tears so that we could have a better life.”
Her mother, she said, was 82 now and back at home, “cool as a cucumber and calm as all that.” Her mother harbored no doubts, but Essie was going to wait until it was officially announced before letting her guard down.
“I can’t explain what it means, except to say that we have arrived finally after a very long journey through trials and tribulations,” she said. “This means everything.”
Nearby Mikele and Nadira Jones, seven and 10 years old respectively, were caught up in the excitement.
“Obama rocks,” said Nadira, holding up a poster of the future president.
Her sister squealed with delight every time his face appeared on screen.
Their mother Nicole Jones, 35, a hairdresser with her own salon in Harlem, pronounced herself quite calm as the counts progressed.
“I leave it in the hands of the Lord,” she said. “God is better than everything and he wants this man to lead us.”
She said the talk of her salon named Three Dimes and a Quarter had been Obama for months.
Mike Humes, 50, was dressed in a shabby jacket and jeans but wore a smile as wide as the boulevard he was standing near.
“I’m thinking history will be made,” said the drug counselor in training. “We have waited too long for this, but our night is finally here.
He pointed to the screen. “This is one of the greatest nights of my life” he said, a broad grin creasing his lined face. “This is history.”
For Shirley Waller, 70, the night was unfolding like a dream for her. Sitting in the makeshift stand, holding a walking cane, it had clearly not been easy for her to make it to the celebration.
She was determined to come, however. Born in Georgia, she remembered well the sharp indignities of her youth in the Deep South and the work that Martin Luther King had done to bring hope into her life. Her great grandmother had been born a slave.
Now she said she was witnessing another Dr. King in the shape of the young skinny black man who was about to become president.
“I thank God I lived to see this day,” she said.
Later the great and the good of New York politics arrived, led by Congressman Charles Rangel, head of the powerful Ways and Means Committee and Harlem’s local representative.
He was asked by a reporter to put the night in context. He said it must have been like this for Irish Catholics when John F. Kennedy was elected in 1960.
Perhaps it was, but I doubt if that night touched the deep emotional wellspring that Obama’s victory did among African Americans. Their ancestors had come shackled in slave ships, and they had endured incredible hardship and discrimination.
Now one of their own was going to be the most important person on earth by January 20 next year. No wonder they could hardly believe it.
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