Kate Jennings captures perfectly the intensity of these past months, the terrible anxiety we felt, the almost pathological conviction that the Republicans would do anything, say anything, pull out all the stops, and that the Democrats would just stand there like numbskulls while the election was stolen from them once again. It was absolutely excruciating, despite the obvious steely competence of the Obama campaign, and the steady march toward victory that, in hindsight, this clearly was. No matter how fervently we were exhorted to hope, what many of us were experiencing was actually fear.
America has been living in a state of fear – pumped up by the Bush administration whenever it showed signs of flagging – for nearly eight years. Fear of enemies, fear of weapons, fear of difference, fear of science, fear of tolerance, fear of truth. How we can have been so oppressed by our own freely elected government is one for the historians (though Jennings’ observations about Cheney’s Cheney might be a good place to start). But, in addition to the recent warping of our national mindset, there was our unspeakable history and the particular way it intersected with Obama’s campaign. Sometime in the summer my friend Hazel Rowley, who also lives in New York, wrote to me: “We are all thinking about it, aren’t we? There’s something so saint-like about him and his message of hope. Every time that’s bobbed up in America, it’s been gunned down.” This, of course, was on everybody’s mind and the flare-ups of ugliness at some of Sarah Palin’s rallies did nothing to reassure us.
So, there were some obvious reasons to be afraid. But there were also some that were not so obvious. The enormous outpouring of joy and relief on the eve of the election – absolutely palpable all over the country (well, maybe not in the south) – suggests that what we were really afraid of was something about ourselves. The election of Barack Obama showed us, as much as it proved to the rest of the world, that we were not as racist a country as we were afraid we might actually be. Our fear of our own dark side – the idea that our worst history might be inescapable – was far more scary and debilitating than increased taxes or the idea that jihadists were coming to murder us in our beds. We were afraid that, when put to the test, America would reveal itself to be, first and foremost, a country of bigots. And the relief that this was not true swept over us like a January thaw.
In the aftermath of the election, many people have been at pains to remind us that America is still a country in which the playing field is not level. All the social indicators – life expectancy, infant mortality, income, educational attainment, incarceration rates – are worse for African-Americans, and none of that changed overnight on 4 November. But the symbolic effect of having a not-simply-white person in the White House is also inescapable. As Frank Rich put it in the New York Times, America is not yet post-racial. But, in some sense, Barack Obama is.
An inauguration-day story in the Times by Jodi Kantor laid this out in some detail in a description of Obama’s extended family. There was the step-grandmother from Kenya, the Indonesian-American half-sister, her Chinese-Canadian husband, and the descendents of both white Americans and African slaves who speak, among them, at least nine languages, including Cantonese, Hebrew and Swahili. This complexity, which must at first have looked like a liability, was in fact a huge advantage for Barack Obama because his opponents were never able to resolve it into a single, clearly alien and scary thing, as they might have been able to do if he were simply African-American.
The fact that while Obama is both African and American he is not actually African-American (that is, not descended, unless on his mother’s side, from African slaves brought to North America) also seems to have relaxed the relationship between him and the white people he needed to vote for him if he was going to be elected president of the United States. This is not why they voted for him in the end. They did that because, ironically, there were suddenly some new and pressing reasons for terror, namely global economic meltdown, and they wanted someone smart, calm and competent at the helm. But the ambiguities of his identity seem to have made it easier for them to put aside the racial issue, to forget about it for a while and get beyond the diabolical two-step in which white and black people in America have been trapped for hundreds of years. Americans, both white and black, voted for Barack Obama because he is reassuring and encouraging, bold and yet flexible, insightful but firm. He is obviously born to lead and people of all walks and stations of life recognised that. But the way he stayed above the racial fray, accepting it as one more facet of our history to be faced squarely but without histrionics, was hugely liberating for us all. Suddenly we could see a world in which race was important but no longer defining. Suddenly, there were other things to think about – and we did.
Jennings writes that with a week to go before the election a famous UK journalist predicted there would be dancing in the streets. “But I dismiss the optimism as coming from a Brit who doesn’t understand race in this country,” she writes. “Because I come from an Australian farming background, I’m more pragmatist than pessimist, although if asked whether a glass is half full or half empty, I will answer, ‘What glass?’” I had to laugh when I read this. You can live a long time in another country but this is one of the things that will never change. It’s one of the things I liked most about this essay: the dry Australian point of view, infused, but only sporadically, with American zeal. Americans are notoriously un-nuanced – earnest, eager, unselfconscious, even slightly silly when viewed from bleaker, wittier corners of the world. But this was another thing about the election that struck me. Our national tendency toward innocence was for a moment elevated from the ridiculous to the sublime.
At the time, I took my own anxiety about the election to be a form of realism – there were lots of legitimate reasons to be worried and afraid – but looking back on it now I wonder if it wasn’t rather an absence of hope. “Hope” was, of course, the watchword of the Obama campaign, and I have to confess that I found it slightly irritating. It seemed – how else can I put it? – sort of corny. “Hope” did not strike me as a political message; it was not like “Change” or “Action” or “Restoration of the Public Trust.” “Hope” seemed naive, almost simplistic, and too close by half to “Faith.” If there is one thing we do not need any more of in America, it’s religion in the public sphere. But it seemed clear from the outset that no matter how religious Obama might be in private, he was never going to impose his religious views on the rest of us. This was not someone who believed, as both George W. Bush and Sarah Palin seemed to, that God Himself had chosen him for a mission. Which made Obama’s unwavering conviction even more impressive; there was something, okay, audacious about his hope.
We progressives in America are like wounded lovers: we’ve been let down so many times that it’s almost impossible for us to believe our time will come. But in the aftermath of an election that I wanted so desperately but could never actually believe would happen, an election that President Obama himself seems never to have doubted, I’m beginning to wonder if there isn’t something to that cheerful, can-do attitude for which Americans are so often mocked. The essence of this moment seems to be that after nearly a decade of being ground down, something like optimism really did rise up in the American people. And what’s really weird is that it reached its peak just as everything else around us was going straight to hell. In the October that Jennings chronicles, there had never been more reason to be scared and worried, but the push, the shove really, toward pessimism was counterbalanced by an even more powerful force. So nobody did jump. The storyline was too compelling. I wonder if Jennings could be convinced to keep typing? We’re all still waiting to find out how it ends.
Christina Thompson is the editor of Harvard Review and the author of Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 33, Quarry Vision.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY