I was freezing. Not the normal freezing, where I am sitting in my dorm room, too lazy to turn up the heat. The kind of bone-chilling cold you can only experience after hours of walking through giant puddles, knocking on hundreds of strangers’ doors and carrying around giant clipboards full of addresses, names, door hangers and stickers. I was canvassing for Sen. Barack Obama.
When Obama declared his candidacy for president, I cried. When he was first on the cover of Newsweek, I screamed. When he created his interactive blogging Web site, I signed up. And when I got an e-mail saying his campaign could use my help in Toledo, I headed down for a few days during my spring break. Yes, I am that moved by this man.
[lawler] My friend Jordan Bailey, a senior from Stoney Creek High School in Rochester Hills, Mich., came with me. Because we are poor students, the campaign placed us in the home of some kind Obama volunteers. At first I thought the house belonged to canines, because when Jordan and I knocked on the door, we were instantly attacked by two golden retrievers. It was a momentary blur of sloppy pink tongues and happy barking. Those turned out to be the greeters, and soon a supremely kind couple named Denise and Barry came to call off the dogs. After getting to know our host family (and bonding over some Saturday Night Live), we called it a night.
As we neared what MapQuest had pinpointed as our destination early the next morning, I saw a sign that said “Democratic Pub” and stopped the car. I’d taken a picture of a “Conservative Club” sign in England on my last spring break, and I thought it only appropriate that I get its antonym this year. But looking closer at the address, I realized we weren’t just near our destination – we were at it. Thrilled to enter such an establishment, we soon met our organizer. He was a college student, and his main function seemed to be liberally distributing buttons and stickers. After a brief training session, he sent us out with a list of addresses to canvass.
Canvass always had such a nice connotation to me – a piece of art waiting to happen, the material Converse tennis shoes are made out of. So maybe my ideas were a bit lofty, but when we got to the low-incoming housing district of Toledo I was surprised. Perhaps this is the point I should provide a disclaimer: I come from suburbia. Picture the ultimate suburbia and then multiply that by three – that is Rochester Hills. My high school parking lot was dotted with brand new Hummers, so when I parked in a neighborhood of run-down houses and boarded-up windows, I was out of my element. “Jordan…” I whispered, “we’re not in Rochester anymore.”
We tramped through the slush-filled sidewalks, some with holes so big it was safer to walk on the icy streets, and when we did find somebody at home, they were generally welcoming and supportive of Obama. A few invited us into their homes to warm up, and others wished us good luck. People answered in various states of dress, but they always stood at the door and listened to what we had to say.
They often told us why they supported Obama. While there were some quite compelling reasons, it was the simplest one that caught me off guard. This particular house was in pretty bad disrepair – shutters missing, walk un-shoveled, paint hanging in strips. I wasn’t sure anybody lived there, but we knocked on the door anyway. We waited for a few minutes and were walking away when an elderly black woman opened the door. “What y’all need?”
We explained we were from the Obama campaign, when the elections were taking place and how she could get a ride if she needed one. Then we got to the part that always scares me, because I am not sure it is something I would want a stranger coming to my door and asking me about. But I said it anyway: “Can we ask who you’ll be supporting in the primary on Tuesday?”
Her eyes bore through me, and for a minute I thought she might hobble up and strangle me. But she eventually broke into a slightly manic laugh. “What color my face, girl? What color my FACE?”
Was this a trick question? She was black, and I was white. I knew that. She knew that. Jordan knew that. It was the most racially-charged encounter I personally had ever experienced, and there was no politically correct way out of it.
But her eyes bore into mine, searching, anticipating, waiting for an answer.
I swallowed. “Your face is black.”
She cackled again, her face showing every wrinkle earned. “Your man’s face is black too. Who do you think I’m supporting? You a cute couple of white kids, but this election is ground-breaking for my people.” She laughed quietly, and shut the door.
[emily] I stood on her stoop, ready to cry. Was it that simple? I agreed with Obama’s policies, his attitude, his past actions, his future plans. But this woman connected with him on a level infinitely more basic – arguably more meaningful. This woman was voting for him because he was hers, he was every African American’s. He was black.
“Emily? Emily, let’s go.” Jordan was pulling me off the porch, down the un-shoveled walk, past the crooked mailbox. I was stunned, I was confused and I was cold. Still cold.
Was it all that simple? Had that woman said what everybody else in this neighborhood was too politically correct to say? Were people on this street voting for Obama just because of the color of his skin? I get a day off of school every year to commemorate a very influential person: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He dreamed that one day, people would not be judged by the color of their skin. Last time I checked, there weren’t any contingencies or qualifiers on that. There wasn’t part of the speech that said, “Unless they’re judged favorably.” Voting for somebody based on the color of their skin is wrong. There are so many other things about Obama that a person can love, admire, support, get behind. His skin doesn’t have to be one of them. But perhaps the relationship between this woman and the candidate she’s never met is something I can never understand.
But Obama needed my help, and Jordan and I canvassed the rest of the neighborhood. We went back to our host family’s house when it got dark out, and watched the latest news with them. There was a thing about the red phone commercial, and a debate with Obama and Hillary’s campaign managers. Then there was a man I didn’t know, talking about how people needed to stop focusing on Obama’s race, because it wasn’t playing a huge role in this election.
Not a huge role? All that ran through my head was, “What color my FACE?” I turned the news off, and went to sleep. The next day, we were back on the road, and this time our assigned neighborhood was wealthy. Really wealthy.
The houses were clones of each other, on generously-sized lots, with neatly shoveled sidewalks and fresh paint. A lot of them featured enormous chandeliers in their front windows, and intricately carved front doors. I felt at home until I started knocking on those doors. The majority of the people living here were Republican and didn’t have a problem letting me know.
It’s not like I am a “crazy liberal.” I am generally moderate, but these people looked at me like knocking on their doors was the only break I took from running through fields naked, smoking pot and hugging trees. The statement, “I could never vote for a Democrat” took on a whole new tone – I’d never heard that word spoken with such disdain, hate even. I was afraid that some were going to slip and ask if I was from, of all things, “The-Party-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.”
We canvassed two neighborhoods that day and found only three Obama supporters. There was no inviting us in to warm up, making small talk about election predictions or thanking us for being out in the cold.
We met every stay-at-home mom on the block, fended off overfed puppies and tread carefully around pristinely preserved yards. Our reward? Not big. I had one lady slam the door in my face when I said I was from the Obama camp. I had to wonder, was she just as turned off by his skin color as the black lady had been turned on by it? Or did she oppose Obama for some other reason?
And, thinking about that, I couldn’t decide where I felt most at home. These rich white people didn’t know anything about me. They didn’t know that I lived in a house as nice as theirs, drove cars as nice as theirs, went on vacations to all the exotic places they went on vacation, had a Coach purse in the car and routinely flew in helicopters for fun. They couldn’t know that, but they didn’t care. I was a liberal, and that made me crazy. I’ve never felt so different.
But I trudged on. Even though I was angry, lonely, wet. Cold. Because Obama is a person and a cause and a message I can stand behind, no matter who else supports me, or what temperature it is. He didn’t win in Ohio, but he won me right then. The black neighborhood, the first canvassing center, the kind volunteers, the family that we lived with. Maybe these people didn’t have much money or hold positions of power, and their houses and offices weren’t million-dollar bedazzlements. But they were on my side, and elections are all about picking sides.
When it comes down to it, I have a lot of respect for the people I’m standing with.