It's just before 7:30 p.m., on the eve of Martin Luther King Day, and I've arrived at a banquet hall west of Chicago. Some 570 pilgrims, mostly African-American and mostly constituents of Congressman Danny Davis, are preparing to board 10 buses en route to hotels across the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.
With all the talk about hope, mine, right now, is to step off the motor coach there having registered not merely the joy about the inauguration of Barack Obama, but the reservations. I've had my own: what would George Washington, who abdicated the presidency rather than let himself be anointed a terrestrial god, think of the near deification of his 43rd successor? I recalled what Joan Didion wrote about the e-mails she got—"Again and again, perfectly sentient adults cited the clinching arguments made on the candidate's behalf by their children." It bothered her: "Naiveté, translated into 'hope,' was now in." Because I want to say something new about the danger of that naiveté, I've devised what I think is a clever question to ask the group I'll be riding with: what about Obama's presidency do you think might disappoint you? Who could possibly say that the answer was "nothing"?
Just inside the front door of the church, I am buttonholed by Vera Gordon, who is here with her son Anthony. She wants to tell me a story. She visited her mother in the nursing home just after the election. Her mom has dementia, and so to drive home what had happened, Vera, tapping her own black skin, said to her: "Mom! The president is a black person!" Her mother immediately began to cry: "Wow, wow, wow, wow." I didn't quite have the heart to ask Vera Gordon how Barack Obama might disappoint her.
I'm pulled deeper inside the hall by a conviviality that sounds like a family reunion. "My daughter went to Tougaloo!" I hear a voice say. That's a name that chimes to anyone like me who studies the civil-rights movement because it's the small Mississippi college where the nonviolent movement to confront Southern segregation was born. I introduce myself to the woman in the Tougaloo sweatshirt. Her name is Eunice Mitchell; she's here with her daughter Marilyn, a teacher, and her granddaughter Joy. Eunice graduated from Tougaloo in 1962, took nonviolence workshops with Martin Luther King, then moved to Chicago. Two years later, her parents joined the struggle by hosting Freedom Summer volunteers in their Mississippi farmhouse. For doing so, her father was shot at by the Klan.
The music on in the background is Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready." As it cycles through Kool and the Gang's "Celebration," I make my way to the table for the folks staying at my hotel. Toni Stockero, who's white, introduces me to one of her union sisters, who is black. Janice Scott, whose silver, close-cropped hair matches her silver earrings, moved north with her family in 1967. Her earliest memory of Chicago: a teacher telling her "to run and run and run and not to stop." It was April 1968, King had just been assassinated, and her neighborhood had broken out into riots. I ask her—no, I can't ask her how Barack Obama might disappoint her.
The last thing the world needs is one more sappy article about the reverence that Obama's inauguration inspires among people of color. So I cycle back to the Mitchells and summon up the courage to ask them my (now increasingly dopey-feeling) question. I do so, and they exchange incredulous glances. "Nothing," they agree, of course, though Marilyn follows up with teacherly inflection, saying, "At … this … point." It would take me to the end of the journey to get what she meant.
It's nearly 11:30 now, and almost everyone is aboard the buses. "The band?" our driver complains when he learns what's holding up the processional. "Band don't have a seat? They a marching band? They can march to Washington!"
There's a camera crew on my bus, as well as Representative Davis, trip organizer Tumia Romera—and 55 teachers, retirees, entrepreneurs, factory workers, radiology techs, housewives, massage therapists, union reps and others. The buses are finally ready to roll, two and a half hours late, to murmurs about working in the "CPT time zone."
The phrase is a bit of ethnic self-mockery; it stands for "Colored People Time." I learned about CPT as a teenager when the black members of my jazz-funk band busted on each other. The first time I got called out for a CPT violation had to be one of the happiest moments of my life. Americans brim with folk phrases that are unintelligible to those outside their immediate circles. The moments when people trust a stranger enough to speak as they would among themselves always feel rare and special; I learned from my Dominican sister-in-law, for example, the precise time it's appropriate to call a man "Papi." It's corny, but it's moments like these when I feel most patriotic, and I predict those moments will become less rare in the age of Obama. I had plenty on the bus: Jews always seem to have an insistent uncle who says Hitler was part Jewish, and it turns out that there are other insistent uncles who are certain that Obama isn't the first black president, but the sixth.
My seatmate, Anita, and I share a laugh about that one before she dozes off. I strike up a conversation with three women who met last summer learning to be campaign field reps. "You know how some people you get along with right away?" asks Alicia, before introducing me to her friends Elease and Bridgette. (While canvassing in Indiana, they came up with aliases. Anita, because of her devilish personality, was nicknamed "Angel." Elease became "Sophia," and Bridgette, "Sofia"; Elease claimed the name first.) The fourth in their row is a slender, elderly woman—Mary Baldwin, a public-housing resident who marched with King in Chicago in 1966. She got a nickname from them, too—the churchy Southern honorific of "Miz Mary."
Kitty-cornered from my seat is a Muslim woman, Fozyia Huri, and her daughter Isra. Their camcorder is stuck with a "01/08/09" time stamp, a glitch they find unacceptable given the historic date before them. As the sun rises over the Ohio Turnpike, I sidle beside her to learn about the family. She grew up in Saudi Arabia; her husband, Ahmed Jirreh, is from Somalia; he's stuck on a separate bus because of a bureaucratic snafu. They met in America in an arranged marriage.
I remark that they don't share a last name—a Somali tradition? It is the tradition, it turns out, of modern American women like Huri, a child-development grad student. I note that she covers her head. She didn't used to, she says, and then, one windy Chicago morning, she was having a bad hair day. She slipped on a headscarf, and she liked how it felt when a smiling man on the street addressed her with "Assalamu alaikum." She's worn one ever since.
After breakfast at a Golden Corral buffet outside Pittsburgh, I ask Huri about what this trip means to her family. She thinks back to Ahmed's swearing-in as a citizen in 1987. President Reagan spoke." 'You can't come to India and become an Indian'," Huri recalls Reagan saying. " 'You can't come to China and become Chinese.' Obama shows that, if you have a goal, you can get it. We have always encouraged our kids to have a big dream." I look over at her earnest 15-year-old son, Faisal, who travels 45 minutes each morning to attend the best public school he can, and I compliment her: "You have a great family." "Well," she says, blushing, "we try!" Once again, I'm loath to inquire about reservations and disappointment.
Congressman Davis is talking to the bus about the expected crowds at the Mall. I ask him a question, which leads him sideways to a spontaneous discourse on his recent resolution to get to know better "cousins that I ignored because I didn't feel I was related to them"—Chicagoans with pale skin and freckles.
Davis became aware of a Chicago policeman named Reuben Glass. "Glass," which is Gaelic, is Davis's mother's maiden name. The congressman, a dark-skinned man, has many dark-skinned maternal cousins named Reuben. Davis tracked down the cop. What the congressman confirmed with Glass was a common Irish ancestor responsible for the family name "Reuben." "We talked and talked and talked, and it was a real-deal cousinship," says Davis. The riders nod. I do, too. We all know what real-deal cousinships are about—the pleasures of endless rounds of what my family calls "Jewish geography" (i.e., "My daughter went to Tougaloo!").
"Some of these stories are coming to the surface in a way it hasn't had a chance to before," Davis says, suggesting that more people are interested in their biracial heritage now because of Obama. "There are other people who try to deny it existed because of the way it existed," he says, a reference to the fact that most interracial pairings, going back to the time of slavery, were considered shameful. He says it's time to own up to the nation's inherently mixed nature. So, he says, "I can try to shape things from the time of now." And from the time of now, Danny Davis has Irish cousins.
We must have been somewhere in eastern Pennsylvania when I begin to get what Marilyn Mitchell told me at the banquet hall: "At … this … point." It doesn't implicitly mean that there very well could be disappointments in the future, even if there aren't any that she can think of currently. It's just her way of marking "the time of now." Obama's most alchemical accomplishment is that he has facilitated the kinds of discussions I've been having since arriving at the banquet hall. Discussions that teach us that, say, Southern blacks are bestowed with the "Miz" honorific as a sign of respect. Obama is the catalyst for new kinds of conversations—conversations where we trust others enough to slip into the argots of our communities and share what's unique to them. This is not, in the Didion sense of the word, "naiveté." The only people who disagree with that, the cynic reproaches himself, don't need to be heard from at all right now.