Sunday, August 31, 2008

An extraordinary night

We're waiting in Seattle now, and the Democratic National Convention is really over for us. With all the news in the past days, the Republican VP pick, hurricance Gustav, what happened in Denver has been pushed back.

I've had trouble trying to put it into words, and feel almost as if I am doing a disservice to the whole night in trying. But of course, I will try!

But what happened in Denver has been a long time coming. How incredibly appropriate for the the first black man to be nominated for President of the United States to accept his nomination on the 45th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior's "I Have a Dream" speech.

Martin Luther King III had the whole crowd silent for a moment, then erupt into appluase when he said that his father would be proud of what was happening, proud of Barack Obama. Just 45 years ago, to the day, a man gave a speech that resonated around the world, dreaming of a time when people of all colors would be seen as equals. Maybe we are not "there" yet, but I really do wonder if Dr. King could have imagined this coming true, and that his own son would be there to mark the day a black man would be nominated by millions of people, all around the country, as their choice for President.

I was looking forward to the presentation they were going to give about Dr. King for weeks. But I was not prepared for how emotional I would be just watching the video about him. I wasn't the only one.

The screen flashed images of the times, the hosings and arrests, the "White's Only" signs, the marches, the images of a time that really wasn't so long ago. Dr. King's words were played throughout the video.

I found myself thinking of the signs that used to be up in Alaska: "No dogs or Indians," signs I knew my grandparents and great-grandparents saw as part of their day. I thought of the struggle in Alaska for Native people to be accepted, first as citizens, having to throw out their culture just for the privilege of doing so. I thought about their struggle for equality, to be given an even chance at education and livelihood.

Here we were, in a convention in which the "minorities" were the majority. I, a mixed Tlingit/Athabscan woman, sitting next to a half black, half white girl and a man from Ethiopia. The Alaska delegates were a majority of women, (as was the convention as a whole) with black men, Alaska Native men and women, white men and women - all sorts.

One of those Alaska delegates was Cal. He surprised me the morning of Obama's acceptance speech by being introduced as someone who had been there, 45 years ago, at the march on Washington. He heard Dr. King's speech, and he would hear Obama's speech.

When he spoke, he spoke about the time, and what it meant. He spoke to the Alaska delegation about a different time, but we could see it through his words.

Two members of the Alaska delegation were there on that day 45 years ago, and I couldn't help but wonder if they saw this possibility then, coming in their lifetime.

I asked Cal today if he imagined at the time a black president within his lifetime. He at first said he didn't really think of it at the time, and then realized that just the idea that it wasn't thought of meant no, he didn't really think of the possibility of a black president. He said that being from the south, at that time, listening to that speech, that what really felt more possible was getting someone in office - a white man - that would speak for them, an advocate.
I asked him what he was thinking of during Obama's speech, and he said he wasn't really thinking of the people present - that he was thinking of all the people who had gone before, the people who had died who worked so hard for exactly this.
I can't help but echo what he said in what I was thinking during much of that last night. The people who had gone before, who worked so hard to see this result, and so much more to come. I thought of my grandmother's work in Alaska Native education and rights, I thought of those who came before her, of Roy and Elizabeth Peratrovich and the countless Native civil rights activists. I thought of my grandmother's mother and father, a white man and a Native woman. An auntie had once pondered what my great-grandfather and grandmother had done, walking through town where one could go inside a store, and one was not allowed.
During the Dr. King presentation especially, I finally got the full meaning of the phrase, "Standing on the shoulders of giants."

After many, many speeches and presentations, the crowd erupted again when they began to show a video of Barack Obama - a little bio of his life. First, an "Aww..." for a baby picture, followed minutes after by more when Michelle was talking about him (At first she just thought he was a nerd with a funny name, before he talked her into dating.)

You got a real sense Barack as a person after the video, and the crowd knew who was coming next...

I don't know if they actually announced his name, because as soon as a glimpse of Barack Obama - the crowd roared. I also don't know how long he was standing there as the crowd wouldn't stop cheering, but a pretty long time.

I have tried to describe the speech, but come up with really inadequate words like, "awesome" or "inspiring." It was not just an exercise in emotional speech-giving - you got a real sense of this man's intelligence and fervor for change with his words. The most touching part, again, was his mention of Dr. King. I won't slice the speech hear, but will post it when I get back to Alaska tonight.

The man on the right was from Ethiopia, now living in Denver. He was on the edge of his seat during the whole speech, and I don't think anyone realized how long the speech was - we could have listened to much, much more. Although we just met, after especially good points, or very astute observations, he would look at Morrigan and I and just go, "Wow" or not say anything. Such was the case around the arena. Everyone wanted to share the experience with everyone else.

I talked to several people after that were not that supportive of Obama before. They believed the hype that he was all rhetoric, no substance, or that he was just some winner of a superficial popularity contest. What they saw, listening to the speech, was quite the opposite, and everyone had changed thier minds when I talked to them. He told everyone exactly what his plan was, and just how we, as America, could get there. More importantly, he pointed out that it wasn't going to be just him - it was going to be all of us, working together, to get it done.
I had done my research months ago, not wanting to be a part of some "celebrity" emotional pull, and knew his background, knew his substantial plans for things little and big in the country - including a great plan for First American issues. But listening to him that night, you get the greatest sense of how intelligent this man really is, and just how big the plans for change he has for the country are. When he said that this campaign has not been about him, it has been about "you," it was not the ring of empty rhetoric - you know he meant it, because that is what the whole campaign is about. He touches so many people through his speeches because he is merely backing up the actions he has taken for so long.

What I finally understood on the last night of the convention, was that this really was a celebration. It was a process, yes, to officially elect Barack Obama as the Democratic nominee. But it was a celebration of who we were electing, why we were electing him, and a rememberance of the years that came before. The years in which this kind of election would have been impossible.
Everyone I spoke to imediately leaving had something of the same reaction - "He just has to be President."
It is this sense that no less than the fate of the world actually hangs in the balance that many of us left with. But not in the fear-promoting kind of way so many employ - we did not leave with worry that if the other guy won we would be fearing for our lives, or concern that our lives would be over.
As Obama so aptly reminded us, a young preacher, 45 years ago could have spoken of fear and anger. He could have played to all of our worries for ourselves and the country. But he didn't. He spoke of dreams like "hope" and "change," and reminded us, black, white and in between, that we can. We can make the impossible possible, we can live in a world without anger and hate, and it is ourselves, it is the people that will do it.

I am sure I have not done the speech, or Obama justice, and, wading between the news of the GOP VP pick, the hurricane, and everything else, there is actually quite a bit about this historic night, and this great man. Here is one article I really like from a former Hillary supporter, her "conversion" after going through the convention. On that note, it still amazes me that there is so much in the media about how "separated" the Hillary and Obama sides are. You certainly got no feeling of that in the convention - there was a gennuine feeling of unity, with those who were against it on the far, far minority. I hope you will spend some time examining Obama, his background and his plans.

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