November 21, 2008
The only time my father allows the release of tears from his stubborn tear ducts is when we visit my grandfather’s grave. Other than this rare episode of emotional outpouring, unflinching stoicism is more my father’s area of mastery. On the night the American people overwhelmingly chose Barack Obama as our 44th President, my mother called to tell me that my father shed one lone tear as he watched the television screen.
That night my mother called to make sure she was not watching a parodied news station. It was that same night that I resolved to never speak to my father about that lone tear or the donations he made to the campaign or even the Obama e-mails he read with such routine commitment. I never asked because I did not want my academic discourse and loaded questions to ruin the one time my father was genuinely excited about something other than teaching his Arabic classes or getting a new Islamic history book.
As my mother spoke with me on the phone, I secretly wished to be my father. It wasn’t the years of cancer or 16-hour workdays that I envied. But, here, on election night, I was jealous of his ability to see and feel something I simply could not.
I felt a similar frustration at not being able to see and feel what my high school students could as they watched the results pouring in, and, despite their confusion about the meaning of electoral votes, frantically texted me. I experienced genuine anger at not being able to tap into a spiritual place where I, too, could understand what this one student with special needs saw, as she watched the man she’d meticulously followed in articles she could barely read, become our president.
As I watched everyone around me celebrate, it was difficult to cajole my spirit to conjure up a somewhat public and proper response to Barack Obama’s victory. What sacrifices do I need to make in my public responses to the election? Why is it important that I not rain on someone else’s parade? I am not mandated to have a set of emotions that are identical to the rest of the population–it would be eerie, and dare I say, uninspiring if we all anchored ourselves to pre-selected emotional trigger points.
But, there are times when we cannot be who we are in order to allow others to become what they need to be. My students need hope, and my father needs to see someone who looks like him in a position of power before he passes from this world. My South African friends, who called, texted, sent smoke signals and e-mails to remind me to vote Barack Obama, need to see that we Americans have the potential to do more. For this to happen I must quiet my ambivalence.
It is only proper to celebrate this historical moment; we can save the cynicism and the critique for coming weeks. If nothing else, this election has taught me the importance of meaningful silence and deliberate speaking. Silence is often equated with passive acceptance and oppression, but it can also signal the beginning of a more sustainable political culture where we take a listening stance and recognize the necessity of well-timed intermissions. I have never been fond of propriety when it comes to criticism and politics. However, as I interact more with my students and family, I recognize that any meaningful growth has to be nurturing and non-abrasive.
Is there a time for me to gripe about Barack Obama’s selection of Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff? Is there time to question Obama’s support of the $700 billion bailout even if he supported it conditionally? Of course there is a time, but not now.
The time is certainly not when my students are praising the fact that a non-white man will be the president during their lifetime. The time is certainly not as my father expresses his hope and pride in a black president–especially in light of the fact that, only four decades ago, black folks struggled to cast their votes.
For those of us who have an insatiable appetite for immediate revolution, our sense of urgency sometimes prevents us from celebrating even our partial victories. We are so preoccupied by not having our long-term goals accomplished that short-term goals are too often misconstrued as token and meaningless gestures. Sure, Obama’s victory is not enough for a complete transformation of our society, but it is most definitely a start.
Concerned that we betray our leftist roots by celebrating Obama’s victory, we activists often opt for cynicism, ambivalence and disengagement. We think that because Obama is not exactly what we want, we commit some form of political apostasy by expressing happiness over his victory.
Instead of complaining about how he is not exactly what is desired, we need to begin strategizing about how to push from the bottom up to get that for which we yearn.
Kameelah Rasheed was raised on a harmonious, yet eclectic mix of Islam and old Gil Scott-Heron records. Currently, she teaches 12th grade Humanities in the San Francisco Bay Area. Read more of Kameelah’s writing on her blog, KameelahWrites , see photography at her Flickr page.