It was so warm I was in shorts. The air was alive and sparking against my movements. It was Election Day. No matter what, George W. Bush would be out of office. It was very likely that Chicago’s own, Senator Barack Obama, would be elected the first black president of the United States of America. He would accept the win in Grant Park.
In the morning I went to the drug store across the street from my apartment on Milwaukee Avenue, probably to get disgusting/delicious cigarettes. Terrence was my friend who worked the front register. We gushed at each other about Obama and hugged. People in line hugged. Everyone was smiling.
Obama’s face was everywhere. Every single storefront on every single block had pictures of him. Street artists plastered the city walls with Obama graffiti. There was a lot of Hope and Yes We Can! too - on buttons, in windows, on the sidewalk.
I met a best friend for coffee. I managed his first city council campaign when we were in college. Austin went on to be City Council President and continued organizing for fair housing and the 2008 elections afterwards. At that point, I had been out of the game for four years. I didn’t even vote. I was disillusioned. The G.W. Bush administration undid me.
By 2004 I spent six years working with women candidates who deserved to win, but never did. I was underestimated by older feminist organizers and sabotaged by others. All the movement work was always one step forward, ten steps back. I was too young to manage the mania and despair that came with it.
But listening to Austin’s stories about activating Louisiana voters made me wistful. Obama was Change, with a capital C, and working for a candidate you love is truly satisfying and wonderful. The day was glorious, but I spent a big portion of it beating myself up for not being strong enough to work in the political world. The bare minimum was voting. I didn’t do either anymore.
For dinner I saw my oldest friend, Kate. She is who I became a girl and then a woman with. Today, on the ten year anniversary of Obama’s election, Kate reminded me that we went to Avec, my favorite restaurant. I cannot believe my memory robbed me of such a perfect-day detail, but here I am yearning for truffled ricotta focaccia and a crisp glass of Sav Blanc.
The plan was to go to Grant Park after dinner. Michigan Avenue was blocked off for the celebration. People walked down the usually busy street covered in Obama gear. There were folks on every corner selling tee-shirts and headbands with glittery star antennas. The skyscrapers were lit in red, white and blue. One of them arranged different lights to spell out U.S.A. It looked like the 4th of July. America was being born again.
We wanted to be there with everyone when he won, and to hear his first words, and to see what Michelle was wearing. Austin was up on stage close to Oprah. Other friends were in the crowd too, but Kate and I stayed to ourselves on the outside of the park. It went without saying that we wanted to be holding hands, just us and our city, on the most nationally momentous night of our lives. It’s how I imagine friends felt about watching the moon landing.
Chicago knew it. There wasn’t a doubt in our mind what was about to happen. History.
After Obama had just won the senate seat I spotted him walking into the East Bank Club, presumably to play basketball. Insert heart-eye emoji. My family rolled down all the windows of the car and yelled out to him, “Run for president! We love you!” I met him once around then too, at a fundraiser. My dad and stepmom raved all about my former political work to him with pride. I wish I had a copy of that photo to show off forever.
The Grant Park crowd on election night was dense. It’s estimated that 240,000 were there, but I don’t know, it felt like fifty times that. We all focused on the huge screens in the park. Thunderous glee erupted every time a state was declared for Obama. Each win took us closer and closer to the final results. And then it happened.
Barack Hussein Obama was elected president.
There was so much thrilling collective joy that the earth turned into a trampoline. People were weeping in ecstatic disbelief. We screamed until we had to breathe again to keep screaming. Yes we can! Yes we can! Yes we can!
I was not disillusioned anymore.
We were there and somewhere within walking distance, so was he. Barack Obama and his inner circle found out that they won the presidency on that very ground. Amidst the chanting and the tears I wondered how he handled it. I wondered if he broke down, or if he jumped, arms raised above his head in victory.
Maybe he gave a simple nod, stood up, and became President.
When President-elect Barack Obama and his beautiful family stepped on stage to address us for the first time as the First Family it was like all the sparkles in the air that day puffed together into floating fireworks above and below and inside us. It was like hope could carry us.
I remember what it feels like.
The embodied change on that gigantic stage was glowing. New standards were set. We all wanted to be better and secretly promised each other we would try to be. Bodies were leaned on, but we stood taller. Flags waved because we waved them.
This is who will represent us. This is who we are now. Look at all this love.
Later, a boy asked the president if he could touch his hair, to see if it was the same as his. Later, the president would sing Amazing Grace with tears in his eyes. Later, First Lady Michelle Obama would tell us, “When they go low, we go high.”
My God they have gone low. Our high goes lower and lower to keep up. It doesn’t have to.
When President Obama first took the podium he said, “Hello, Chicago,” and Chicago rose up to meet him, and our future, with roars. Straight away, he talked about new voters and long lines into polling places. He talked about healthy democracies and people believing their voices matter so much that they vote.
A few minutes into his speech the president-elect referenced Sam Cooke’s legendary civil rights anthem. Chicago is Cooke’s home city. Obama said, “It's been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this date, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.”
It will again. Yes we can.