This post is part of our TV One presidential forum blogging set. The focus: Barack Obama.
Last night, I visited the Apollo Theatre for the first time, and I felt like I was a part of history, going there to see Senator Barack Obama speak. I'd had a chance to sit in on a small Q & A session with the Senator at YearlyKos and even got a question in, but this was different. This was Harlem.
The setting was intense. I exited the subway at 125th Street at about 7:15pm for the 7pm event. Incense peddlers, t-shirt entrepreneurs and drummers seemed to emanate from every crack in the sidewalk.
TV camera trucks idled with their bright lights. The cameraphones caught a thousand snapshots a second of the vibrant scene. There were flyers for every thing: fundraisers, after parties and of course myriad activists pitching their causes. I saw everything from "Stop Plan Mexico to" to "boycott all Harlem businesses." (No, I'm not making that up. My friends and I were like "all businesses? Even the incense brothas?"
What really took my breathe away, was the crowd. I walked up to the front of the theatre and picked up my ticket. Then I headed for the back of the line. I walked from mid 125th west to Frederick Douglass. The line continued. Then I walked up to 126th. The line continued. Then I walked east on 126th, and that line continued halfway down the block where it snaked into the parking lot.
All the while I was scanning the faces of the crowd, looking for someone I recognized. What I saw really did amaze me. I saw old black women and young white men. I saw young black professionals and old white couples. And yes, there were Asians and Latinos too. The event held in Harlem, but it played host to all of New York. It was beautiful.
Toward the end of the line, I finally saw some people I knew. I guess I'm not as VIP as I thought :) As we caught up, joked about the GOP debate and took in the scene, I decided to talk to two older black women about why they were there. Given all the hubbub over black support or reticence around Obama, I had to take this limited sample of two for some firsthand insights.
The women expressed a range of explanations for their Obama support:
"Before I die, I want to see a person of color in the White House."
"I like him for his deeds."
For one woman, Hillary Clinton was her second choice. For the other, it was Edwards. For both, what made Obama stand apart was this simple, yet apparently profound fact.
"When he graduated from Harvard Law, he could have gone anywhere, to any corporation in the country, but he chose to go to Chicago and work in the community."
That's all she wrote.
The Apollo Theatre is mad small once you get inside, and with a capacity of just 2,000 most of the people who showed up never even made it through security.
There were a number of opening acts including the Harlem Gospel Choir, a few local officials and activists, a young sister playing the funk out of her violin. In the audience I ran into friends from Yearly Kos and am pretty sure I spotted Maureen Dowd. Just as the audience was getting its most restless, around 9pm, State Senator Bill Perkins brought up Professor Cornel West. I was unprepared for the reaction. I know Professor West. He was one of the reasons I was so excited to enter Harvard College back in 1995. He is a long-winded brotha.
West got the most enthusiastic standing ovation I'd seen in a long while. You could feel the crowd enveloping him with a mixture of awe, love and respect. Without planning to, I found myself on my feat, arms raised toward the sky, full of excitement. The preacher / public intellectual did not disappoint.
With his trademark uneven afro, thin black scarf, black three piece suit and verbal dexterity, West brought historical context to the evening, reminding us of the long history of black activists and artists whose words and deeds found a home at the Apollo. He spoke of Obama glowingly:
"It's not because he's intelligent and articulate. I expect black folk from Harvard to be articulate. But Barack is also eloquent..."
Most valuable to me was West's warning not to see in Barack something he is not, a reincarnation of some great black hope from days gone by.
"We don't expect Alicia Keys to be Sarah Vaughn, and we should not expect Barack Obama to be Frederick Douglass. He is his momma's son and his daddy's son..." and, West continued, he is who we need in this country today.
Much to my surprise, and joy, West wrapped it up in record time and started talking about the role of comedians and satirists in society (music to my ears). Then he stunned the crowd by introducing CHRIS ROCK. If the crowd showed Cornel mad love with his ovation, I can't even describe the outpouring of affection for Chris Rock. You would have thought it was James Brown back for one last show. Incredible.
Rock tossed out some great lines about Bush and his speedy reaction to the California fires. "White people on fire? Bush is there the next day. He was helping put out the California fires with Katrina water." In his hilarious and truthful way, Rock explained to the audience that he wanted to support Obama before he became president, saying we'd be embarrassed if Barack won but we had decided to support "the white lady." So true.
Finally, Chris Rock brought ou Obama.
I was listening and watching Obama as closely as the crowd. I wanted to feel what he could do to a room and what the room would give him. Last night, I'd say both sides delivered. I won't recap all of what he said, but I will focus on the moment in his speech where I became an active supporter. He was talking about health care.
Obama reminded the audience that his own mother died of cancer at age 53 and, in addition to suffering from the disease, she suffered from the dehumanizing struggle forced on her by a broken health care system which had her stressing over her coverage status and employment status and pre-existing conditions and a time when her full energy needed to be devoted to the healing process. It was a short story. It's one I've read about before. But hearing him tell it, I relived my own mother's passing at age 65 due to colon cancer.
I replayed thoughts of doubt about whether or not she had gotten the best preventive care and checkups that she should have, about how doctors might have missed important signs, about her own distrust of the medical establishment due to its long history of disrespect for black patients in general and older black women in particular.
Obama connected his story to my own in a way which made clear to me that he is very much connected to his own humanity. And, we both missed our mothers in that moment, I cried, and I listened and I was so proud of this man who could reach inside of himself and inside of me and connect our hearts for that moment.
His speech contained several rousing moments such as his proclamation that he would support an annual increase in the living wage "because there should be no such thing as the working poor a country this wealthy." He reminded us of the differences between himself and Hillary Clinton. One of them asked tough questions before the war started. One of them is running a more grassroots campaign. One of them will not bring a return of the 90s to White House politics. He spoke of the need to defeat the prison industrial complex.
But aside from the moment of our mothers, what resonated most with me was this, and I'll paraphrase his words:
People often say to me, "Why now? Why not in four more years?" I say to them, "Why wait?" I don't want to look back four years later, when it's too late, when the damage we've done to our planet is irreversible, when we could have started solving America's problems much sooner. We can't afford to wait another moment. There is too much at stake. We need to answer the tough questions now. If we are serious about winning this election, we can't be afraid to risk losing it.
I agree. Why wait.