I wanted to hear first-hand this energetic, thoughtful, intelligent politician who has inspired people of all races and ages. I wanted to see the black man who is poised to take up residency in a house that has been all too white all too long. As an openly gay man in conservative rural Indiana, I value a leader who knows what it is to be on the outside looking in.
After the rally I waited over an hour for traffic to clear. Walking about, I passed an African-American woman who symbolized for me a generation of people Martin Luther King, Jr. once called the “disinherited children of God.”
Her face was wonderfully wrinkled, reminded me of my grandmother. She wore a red plastic rain hat, carried a cane and an Obama-Biden poster. She had left the meeting grounds by a back route, taken what looked to be a short-cut to avoid the crowd, the stairs, a tunnel. Now she stood between the double row of concrete barriers, leaning against the first section, breathing heavily. I wanted to greet her but she was looking into the distance. I went on.
I spotted her red hat when I returned. She was halfway down the long cement corridor. An older man was near the far end, near where my car was parked. “He’s checking to see if there’s an opening in the wall,” a bystander told me. “To see if that lady can get out.” I hadn’t realized her predicament. The cement sections abutted each other, formed a solid barrier about three-and-a-half feet high. I quickened my steps.
The man waved, called that there was an opening on down a ways. I caught up with the red hatter. She kept moving.
“He says there’s an opening down there,” I said.
She stopped, looked over at me. A long pause.
“I was getting ready to climb over this wall,” she said. She sounded as if she meant it. “I had made up my mind. I was going to climb this wall if I had to.”
“I’m glad you don’t have to,” I said. “He says there’s an opening down there where you can get through.”
She resumed walking. She put the cane’s tip down far out in front of her, leaned into each step.
“This is only the second time I’ve been on these grounds,” she said.
“Really? Me, too. When was the first time?”
She named the year I was born.
“1959. My husband died that year and my baby wanted to come to the fair so I brought her.”
“It’s quite an occasion that brings you back.”
“Yes, it is. Quite an occasion.”
We walked in silence. When we parted I wished her good journeys.
“You, too,” she said.
I walked to my car, threw myself on the seat, a dawning realization churning in my gut. I'd come to see history in the making. To watch this nation take a giant step forward in living up to its ideals about equality and the worth of all persons. To see unfolding the “change we need” (slogan of the Obama campaign) and the man who would help make it happen.
Instead I saw how history is made and on whose shoulders it rides. History moves on old tired feet. It advances a few paces, pauses, plods on. Making history requires determination and courage, invincible spirit. It is not the work of one man, one minute, one month, one election year. It may take a lifetime; it may take generations.
History is made by people whom no one notices, whom no one cheers, by people who know hard times, who experience loss, who keep on going. History is made by people who will not be stopped, who even in old age find themselves still having to scale walls, surmount barriers. Who somehow make up their minds that if that’s what it takes, that’s what they’re going to do.
On whose shoulders does history ride? Mine. Yours. We can wait for no one else. We are the change we need. Sure, it’s a heavy burden. The walls thrown round about us are long, hard, real. Time we got a move on.
This essay originally appeared in The Letter, November 2008.