01 November 2008

CHANGE WE NEED (original version)

That day, the shortest line I joined was for the Hoosier Portable Restrooms (motto: "We are your number 1 and number 2 solution"). The political rally began at 12:15. I'd left work at 10:00, braved rain, flouted speed limits and by 11:15 was waiting my turn to enter the Indiana State Fairgrounds. I congratulated myself on making good time, watched as hyphenated people streamed by my car: Asian-Americans, Mexican-Americans, African-Americans, husband-wife couples, girlfriend-boyfriend pairs, white-Americans, parents-of-small-children,  straight  people, one man I dearly hoped is gay. On foot, they were making better time than I was.

I began to think the rally would be over and cars trying to get out before I ever got in. Parking attendants in florescent orange and yellow vests waved me on and on, around corners, under an overpass, up a hill, under a replica of a Parke County covered bridge, at last out onto a large grassy field that was rapidly approaching its automobile saturation point. I was directed to park on the front row, wheels touching gravel of the harness-racing track, about 30 feet from a double row of cement barricades that bisected the entire field—ubiquitous reminders of war on terror.

From their cases I pulled camera and binoculars, slung these around my neck, covered them with my sweatshirt against the drizzle. I rushed from the car, joined the hurry toward the packed grandstand. Upbeat music blared from massive loudspeakers dangling high above the track from cranes flanking a raised platform in front of the packed grandstands. A third crane held a huge American flag in the air. 

I stopped short. Had I locked the car doors? Did I have everything? No umbrella. My camera would get wet. As I dashed back to the car the crowd roared with one voice. Had Senator Obama arrived? Was it starting? Ending? Had I missed it? I dug in my pocket for the car keys. Not there. Not in the other pocket, either. I must have left them in the ignition. Of all the luck. No, there they were in my hand. I grabbed the umbrella and a package of cheese crackers to serve as lunch. Back to the race track.

I fell in line behind a tall handsome African American man in faded designer jeans and brown blazer. He moved rapidly and I was happy to follow suit. We followed the arc of the gravel track for minutes that easily outpaced our strides. We passed police cars and uniformed officers, dodged mud puddles, descended stairs, crossed through a long dark tunnel, climbed stairs, followed the human current up the street into the grandstand's shadow. Music blared. A list of local Democratic candidates was read over the loudspeaker. Although I couldn’t make out all the names, I couldn’t miss the roars of approval. I joined the line for the port-a-potties.

I'd come to see history in the making—a black man poised to take up residency in a house that in effect had long been tagged “for whites only.” I wanted to hear first-hand this energetic, thoughtful, intelligent politician whose words, ideas, opinions, beliefs inspired people of all races and ages. 

The queue for the toilets was testimony to this. Several of us in line were pushing 50; others looked as though 50 had long since quit pushing back. Behind me, a thirty-something white woman shepherded three little girls toward the Hoosier Portable Restrooms. Ahead of me, clad all in black, stood a tall skinny punk with long, spiky pink hair, a cigarette behind his ear. In front of him was an African-American boy of perhaps 13 who wore a t-shirt with Matthew 7:5 across the back: “Why do you see the speck of sawdust in your neighbor’s eye and overlook the plank in your own eye?” 

While waiting at the gates to the grandstand I had plenty of time to watch people. One older man’s garb caught my eye. His flat-topped black leather hat neatly matched the color of his skin. “Descendant of Field Negroes” his t-shirt read. This above a line from Maya Angelou, “And still I rise.” 

In no way can I claim to understand the experience of African-American people in this country, the depth of prejudice and hostility they face, the sting of injustice inhaled with every breath. I do not know what it is to have others act and react according to the color of one's skin, to have doors slammed in one's face, to run headlong into barriers that are no less real for being unseen, unspoken, unacknowledged. I cannot conceive the constant state of alert, the readiness for fight or flight, the keenly attenuated ear to comments, voiced and not, but I can grasp the concept. 

In coming out as a gay man in conservative rural Indiana I have learned what it is for me to encounter hatred, bigotry, fear. To be judged unworthy, less than, sick, perverse on the basis of one item of information.

Since coming out I am more able to hear—more willing to listen to—author Richard Wright’s account of living jim crow—being lied to, cheated and swindled by whites without recourse to justice. Having to tolerate inhumane treatment in order to retain a job. Being verbally and physically assaulted time and again for simply being born black. When writer James Baldwin details his experiences of racism and hostility, I sit up and take notice. Systemic injustice and inhumanity makes for a  rage that burbles in his blood and that of every other living black person. His words ricochet in my skull:

It began to seem that one would have to hold forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is commonplace. But this did not mean one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength. 

I was standing among people who understood this struggle. I was standing among people who could teach me  more than I wanted to know. I was standing in line with others who, like me, were energized by a presidential candidate who knew at a visceral level what it is to be on the outside looking in.  

“Take everything out of your pockets,” intoned the white security guard at the checkpoint. “Turn all electrical devices on.” The stout officer sighted through my binoculars, turned my digital camera on, and—“You can’t take that in with you”—directed me to add my umbrella to those heaped against the wire fence. As I waited for a mother and her three children to step through the metal detector—“one at a time, one at a time—I eyed the sexy black police officer to my right. He traced the contours of an attractive black woman with a long metal wand. 

We in line snaked, snailed our way forward. The waiting droned its own weary message: progress comes slowly. The crowd overhead sounded a different theme: the time for change is now. How to know when and how to wait, to act?

Wait, said eight white Alabama clergymen in January, 1963, in an open letter to Martin Luther King, Jr. Let the courts handle the issue of integration. This is not a time for action. King disagreed. From a jail cell in Birmingham  he wrote an open letter of his own, addressed the clergymen by name. In his letter King recounts the brutal injustice and shameful humiliation his foreparents suffered, cites continuing oppression, racial and economic injustice. He commends as heroes those blacks who engage in sit-ins and other demonstrations, show sublime courage, willingness to suffer for the cause of civil rights. He includes young men and “old, oppressed, battered Negro women,” high school and college students, young adults and elders. 

King looks ahead to the future. “One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters they were in reality standing up for the best in the American dream and the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, and thus carrying our whole nation back to great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in the formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”

I looked around, hoped I was seeing, in part, the fruition of King’s dream. We were people of all ages, of all races, with all kinds of experiences, gathered to hear a candidate who inspired hope that we could move our country in the direction of justice and fairness. 

I looked within, wondered if I was kidding myself. Maybe showing support for Senator Obama allowed me to pay lip service to the notion of liberty and justice, gave me a risk-free, guilt-free sense of accomplishment, let me throw the responsibility for future action on his shoulders.

Actually, I entertained these introspective thoughts on the drive home. Straining to get inside the arena, I was at that moment part of the forward press, my feet but two of the millipede’s many. 

There is energy in a crowd, in merging into something bigger than oneself. I felt this when at long last I stepped onto the wide graveled area in front of the grandstand. The bleachers above and behind me were full. We latecomers were funneled out  into the standing-room-only area between the speaker’s platform and the raised seats. As one, we surged forward, closer, closer. Momentum slowed as we came up against a human barrier of backs and buttocks. The insistent—and I was one—sidled forward through any gap in the wall. The price for this was muddy feet. About 60 feet from the podium the ground turned soupy, then to gritty mud. Three steps and I was in nearly up to my ankles. I put on the brakes. I was elbow to elbow with those around me, could feel the press of the crowd from behind. There were smiles everywhere I looked. 

In front of me to my left, an African-American grandmother stood holding her granddaughter on her shoulders. The little girl perched there for the duration. Initially she and I traded smiles. She had a beautiful grin, coy, compelling. Soon we were sticking our tongues out at each other.

The drizzle stopped. A stiff breeze was pushing clouds from the sky, tugging at the huge flag. I was glad to have brought a sweatshirt. 

Suddenly, cheers and applause boomed from the stands. Why? We groundlings hadn’t a clue. The podium was empty. I stood on tiptoe. Ah, the motorcade, the motorcade had arrived. I counted seven vehicles, maybe more. How many did he need? Which one was he in? I scanned them with my binoculars. Doors opened, people stepped out. I scanned them, too, kept coming back to one cute, cute man whose all-black uniform matched his dark eyes, short dark hair, piercing gaze. 

More waiting. At long last, one of our U.S. senators—the Democrat—took the stage, launched into an introduction of the man we were waiting to see, hear. The crowd drowned him out. “O-ba-ma! O-ba-ma!” Undeterred, the senator from Indiana continued his speech, replete with applause lines. The crowd obliged, but saved its thunderous acclamation for the senator from Illinois.

Next day, the Associated Press reported that Senator Obama spoke for 35 minutes. I suppose that’s correct, although it seemed longer than that and shorter, too. When it was over, he smiled and waved, shook hands with his fellow senator, was somehow swallowed up and disappeared from sight. 

The millipede broke into component parts. Some feet hoofed it for the exits. Some moved toward the podium and emptying platform, snapping photographs. Some like mine stayed put, perhaps wanting to savor the moment, perhaps because the mud acted like glue. 

And where was there to go? We who stood before the stands funneled out as we filed in, one at a time, because a single board bridged the huge mud puddle at the gate. Mass waiting. Quiet conversations, fewer smiles. People compared notes, almost as if discussing a sexual tryst. “It was good for me, was it good for you?” The sun shone. The skies were turning blue. A three-year-old boy sat playing in the mud, his hands no longer white. For a time, upbeat music played over the loudspeakers. Kinky hair bursting from beneath her hooded sweatshirt, a five-year-old girl danced to [Some group’s] “Signed, Sealed and Delivered.”

The smart folks looked to be those who remained seated in the grandstands, let the crowd thin out. Our millipede had reconstituted itself as a tortoise. My umbrella left the grandstands before I did. I opted not to take one of the few still lying against the metal fence. 

I joined an impromptu beach party across the street where a water faucet sprayed onto the sidewalk, formed a rivulet along the pavement's edge. A middle-aged woman with blond hair, purple rain poncho and plenty of enthusiasm encouraged people of all ages to splash in puddles or stick feet under faucet, rinse away mud.

With clean shoes I joined the exodus down the street, down the stairs, through the tunnel, up the stairs. This time I was permitted to walk alongside the cement barricade, cut across the field, didn't have to arc around the track to get to my car. I arrived to find the route out was bumper-to-bumper, moving at the speed of a glacier caught in global warming. It would be a good hour before I could think about leaving. I retraced my steps, returned to the Hoosier Portable Restrooms. No line this time.

Three people I passed en route caught my eye. One was a professorial type: gold-rimmed eyeglasses, an admirable amount of gray-white hair, gray goatee, trim build, light blue dress shirt, khaki slacks, loafers. He was deep in conversation with a female companion. They were using a section of the concrete barricade as their own private balcony. 

On past them I saw the five-year-old dancer and her family—younger sister, still-younger brother, white mother, African-American father. My heart fluttered. Her father’s long black hair was done up in a multitude of braids, each frosted a tawny gold at the end. Each jounced as he walked. I wanted to gawk. I wanted to invite him home. I watched as he held his son’s hands, lifted him across the wide mud puddle that covered the path. I smiled but he didn’t see me. I splashed through, walked on. 

At the top of the stairs I saw an African-American woman whose wondrously wrinkled face and hunched posture reminded me of my grandmother. She stood on the opposite side of the concrete barrier, leaning against it, breathing heavily. She wore a red plastic rain hat, carried a cane. I wanted to greet her but she was looking away into the distance. I kept my peace, started down the steps to the tunnel.

When I returned I spotted her red hat. She was walking between the barricades, had covered almost half of that long corridor. When I came to the big puddle I noted it swamped my path but left the middle trail dry. That’s why she went that way, I thought. Must be higher ground in there. 


The professor was walking along the barricade towards where my car was parked, had left his companion at their balcony. “He’s checking to see if there’s an opening in the wall,” she 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. She must have come across the field the back way, avoided the tunnel, taken what she thought was a short-cut. Now she was trapped.

The professor 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 held the cane in one hand, an Obama-Biden campaign sign in the other. 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 fairgrounds,” 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. A lump formed in my throat. My stomach felt queasy. As she reached the waiting professor 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 this rally 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 bring it about. 

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.

A condensed version of this essay appeared in The Letter, November 2008

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