I did not think Obama would win.
I liked him more than any candidate in my lifetime. Nevertheless, I thought, let me get this straight. A black man named Barack Hussein Obama, with little legislative experience, born to a white American mother and a Muslim Kenyan and raised partially in Jakarta, is our guy? Running against a funny, charismatic lily-white war hero, a scandal-free “maverick” who, over many years of service, has earned the deep respect of both Democrats and Republicans, and done a lot of governing? And this is going to happen in the same country where, just over a generation before, it was legal to refuse someone service if they were black? The country of Rodney King? Of entrenched racism, evident in our disastrous invasions of Middle-Eastern countries? Murderous invasions most Americans, to my dismay, were apparently okay with?
Yes, I’d been thrilled like everyone at handsome, magnetic Obama’s soaring keynote at the 2004 Democratic convention. He was a rock star. He made people laugh, he had the eye of the tiger. Yes, I really, really wanted it to be true that he had a chance. But I worried not only that McCain would win, but also that the election would reveal a lasting fear of blackness among white Americans. (I was right.) I worried Obama would get shot. (I was wrong.)
It didn’t allay my doubts when I heard an older white Southern woman admitting to a radio reporter that she worried that if Obama won black folks would be emboldened to rise up and get revenge for slavery, for Jim Crow, for continued oppression. There would be hell to pay. I think a lot of white people feared that.
We laugh at Sarah Palin now, but at the time, I recognized the appeal that I would recognize again with Trump in 2016. Even as I guffawed at Tina Fey’s impression, I understood why McCain chose her. She scared the shit out of me. Sarah Palin was about eight years too early.
In summer of 2008, something shifted. By then, the Great Recession had cratered the world economy, deeply affecting both Republicans and Democrats (even little old me). Obama, who never seemed to tire, and whose exemplary oratory skills only got better as he went along, leaned in: “This is what you get from eight years of conservative policy, and an unnecessary, expensive, disastrous war that I voted against.”
When I talked to my lifelong Democrat, erstwhile hippie mother around that time, I began to open myself up to hope, to even muse that fate had maybe smiled on Barack Hussein Obama. Mom lives in Rome, Georgia, about 20 miles from the Alabama border. Rome is pretty progressive for a Deep-South town, with several colleges, and little racial unrest. But it’s still the Deep South, with a statue of Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, founder of the KKK, in the center of town.
“I saw something I’ve never seen today,” Mom said. “I drove through a black neighborhood, and every front yard had an Obama sign in it.”
There had never been campaign signs of any kind on those lawns before.
This news hit me hard, in a good way. Because I knew it would come down to turnout. If the sleeping giant that is the African American vote awakened, all was possible.
On November 4, 2008, 58 percent of eligible voters, 131 million people, cast ballots. The biggest turnout of my lifetime, and the most diverse in history. Black voter turnout increased five percentage points, nearly matching the voter turnout rate of white eligible voters. That made all the difference.
I called my mother. Afterwards, I walked into the chill November night alone and hooted at the stars. Down the street, beneath the halo of a streetlamp, an eight-point buck stared at me, then leapt back into the darkness.