Finding Obama, finding myself
Rolling into history on a 14,000-mile inauguration odyssey
And there I was—frozen stiff—amid the huddled masses on the Washington Mall waiting for Barack Obama to walk onto the stage and place his hand on the Bible and declare that life for black folks and white folks would change forever in America. My hands were swollen and red; my feet had no feeling. It was 18 degrees in the sunshine, and I had to be the only person out there with no gloves, no long johns and no wool socks.
And yet I felt warmer than I ever had. I was absolutely glowing. Warm, for it was the first time I had felt truly a part of my country, not an outsider. Warm, for it was a confirmation of sorts, another, more hopeful try at a failed marriage between black and white. It was as if the love of my life—after years of shutting me out—had opened the door and said, “Come on in—my bad.”
This was why I had traveled more than 14,000 miles over four days, all the way from New Zealand, hardly sleeping, to be among 2 million other pilgrims. Was there anyone who’d come farther? Who else had journeyed that distance and then spent three days driving cross-country on a bus, from Oakland to D.C., with 50 other Americans, most of them of African descent, eager to be a part of history?
For those of us on the bus, including me, the trip was both an opportunity to experience a seminal moment in American history and a journey of self-discovery and, indeed, rebirth. After 400 years of being strangers in their own country, my people—myself among them—were coming home.Losing my grip
“Dr. Andrews—are you all right?”
The question came from one of my students, a 30-year-old Maori woman named Tamika.
I couldn’t answer her in any way she’d understand, but no, I was not all right. That much was obvious, as I wiped tears from my eyes.
We’d just finished watching the film Rize in my Hip Hop Culture class at the University of Canterbury, in Christchurch, New Zealand. It’s about the outbreak of two dance movements, called “clowning” and “krumping,” in South Central Los Angeles, a community filled with painful street dramas.
The film doesn’t shy away from the violence of those dramas. A young man beats up a schoolmate for looking at him the wrong way; a star dancer and student is shot in drive-by cross-fire after buying a soda; a local black undertaker and casket-store owner smiles a sad smile and declares, “Business is booming!”
That line gets me every time. My cousins live in Compton, and I think, “There but for the grace of God go I.” I have a deep, nightmarish fear of gunfire from my days growing up in Oakland that gets rekindled when the imagined becomes real.
Part of my sadness was also because I was missing America, and especially black people. The little things—like black slang, bragging and boasting about nothing, laughing at our plight and history so as not to get too down, and giving back to the community—all those rituals of black life that keep us whole.
“I miss home, Tamika,” I said. “Black folks still have a lot of problems, and I ain’t doing my part.”
“Well, you’re here in New Zealand helping us out,” she replied. “Kiwis need to know about black American issues—and you’re the only black professor in the country. That counts for something.”Leaving New Zealand
“Don’t worry—everything’s gonna be all right!”
My friends tried to calm me as I paced back and forth across my backyard patio with a telephone clutched in my sweaty hand. A couple of professors and their spouses had come around the house for champagne with me and my girlfriend on this warm January evening, mid-summer in the Southern Hemisphere.
I was talking with Helen Everett Bellamy, one of the several tough Everett sisters in the family that owns the Everett & Jones BBQ stores and joint on Oakland’s Jack London Square. The restaurant was sponsoring a “Get on the Bus—We’re Rolling into History” magical mystery tour to Washington, D.C.—hotel and food included for the low price of $700—and I was determined to be on it.
“We have filled all the seats,” Ms. Bellamy said. “Sorry.”
I was delirious. The bus would be rolling across America to Washington full of black people telling stories and sharing the adventure—without me! What a jackass I had been, so busy paying bills and shuffling papers that I’d let the deadline slip by! I’d missed the Million Man March in 1995 and regretted it ever since, and now I was going to miss the inauguration.
In desperation, I told Ms. Everett my story about teaching in New Zealand and my Black Studies classes and missing my country and my people and (with a touch of shame) my tearful breakdown in front of my students. She screamed in delight—“I love your story! Call me back and I will put you on our conference call—and I want you to repeat the story just like you told me. We’re gonna try to get you on this bus, even if you have to sit on the water cooler in the back!”
I hung up, drank more champagne, called back, and was put on hold. I paced some more, until finally I was connected with the five members of the selection committee. With champagne as my ally, I laid it on thick, clowning and krumping my song about missing black folks and needing to be at the inauguration all the way from New Zealand, which is the land of The Lord of The Rings and Zena: Warrior Princess and Flight of the Conchords and great trout fishing, “and my 82-year-old mother is from Louisiana and loves barbecue!”
I heard chuckling in the background, and then outright laughter. As it turned out, they had already decided that I deserved to sit my sorry ass on the water cooler. They just wanted to hear the sweet sound of a black professor groveling.Meeting the bus
Banners and bright television lights—two stations were going live on the scene—greeted us as we arrived in Jack London Square to meet the bus that would roll us into history. A comedian performed, as did a blues band, while we ate barbecue and drank cold beer.
“Your seat, Dr. Andrews, is in the back row on the water cooler,” Helen Everett said as I stood in line to get on the bus. She was joking, of course, but once I squeezed into my tight window seat—backpack under my feet—I longed for the water cooler.
“My fat ass is way too big for this bus,” I thought. My knees were pinched up against the seat in front of me, I had only my sweatshirt as a pretend-pillow, I was dog tired, and it hit me that I would not see a bed for three nights after sitting awake all night on the flight from New Zealand that had landed earlier in the day.
And then the voice of the bus driver came over the loudspeaker: “There will be no No. 2’s allowed on the bus. Our toilet cannot support this activity. We’ll just stop if Mother Nature calls. So come to the front of the bus and let us know when it’s business time.”
This trip would truly test our intestinal fortitude.“Why are you here?”
Dwayne MacArthur, one of our drivers and the resident black nationalist, wanted to make the trip educational and not just a vacation ride. So he announced over the intercom that we each would be pulled by the ear to come up to the front and hold court on why we had chosen to ride the bus to the inauguration.
People poured out their hearts about losing jobs, divorce, past discrimination, grandparents who wanted to see this day in history and such—and we were well on our way. Some gave short commentaries about being proud of Obama, or being involved in voter registration, or wanting to represent their families. There were long pauses, tears, and some church folks firmly shouting “Amen, that’s all right!”
A Middle Eastern man, Nawan, who had lived in the USA for more than a few years, strode bravely to the microphone and let loose. He knew the USA well and had lived among African Americans, as had the six whites on the bus. Nawan began preaching, saying that “Black people should take care of their children, get to work, not engage in crime, stay out of gangs and away from drugs”—not bad advice, and a reminder of the work yet to be done.
A couple of the sisters in front of me began looking around and making eye contact with one another—a subtle sign that things were amiss. The Muslim had touched a raw nerve, as Mary, a woman in her late 50s, told me.
“This is not the time—and he is certainly not the individual—to be dissing US on OUR bus. Who does he think he is?” I saw her point, and also saw his.No slaves in New Zealand
Then it was time for Chico to “represent.” I say Chico, because I consider this oasis my spiritual home, if there is such a thing. Chico was a welcome retreat after Castlemont High School. I volunteered at CAVE, worked in student government, learned to drink beer from a keg like the white guys and how to get along and even prosper outside urban African America.
But I was in no mood to talk about Chico or anything else when MacArthur pulled my ear. It was 8 in the morning, and I was too hungry and tired to talk. But MacArthur was not to be denied. So, after waving him off twice, I got up to represent Chico and Oakland and New Zealand.
And right in the middle of what I thought was a nice autobiographical flow that had taken me from Oakland to my years in Chico, and then to Hewlett-Packard, where I worked in public relations, and Madison, Wis., for graduate school and then to New Zealand and eventually back to Chico, where I live today, someone shouted, “Hold on! How the hell did you end up in New Zealand?”
Fair enough, I thought. “I got a job offer and accepted it.” Done.
“Well, why did you stay so long?”
She had a point. Fourteen years is a long time.
Then the fatigue kicked in, and I just said what I thought, with no filter.
“The reason I have stayed in New Zealand for 14 years is that white people are not suspicious of me. White women don’t grab their purses or lock their car doors when a brotha walks by. They don’t ask me to leave my backpack at the door in stores; they don’t avoid getting on the elevator with me; they don’t deny me an apartment when I show up for a viewing.”
I was on a roll, telling it like it was. For just a moment I remembered Dr. Nellie McKay and wished I’d known how to “tell it like it was” back in 1996, when she gave me a piece of her mind.
Dr. McKay (God rest her soul), of the African American Studies Department at the University of Wisconsin, was what we black folks call a serious sister. She had little time for trifling matters. She was responsible, along with Dr. Henry Louis Gates of Harvard, for the Norton Anthology of African American literature—a volume I wished had existed during my English-literature days at Chico State.
I bumped into her outside the student union as I headed to have a celebratory beer or two and yelped: “Nellie—I got a job teaching in New Zealand!” I could see immediately that she didn’t share my enthusiasm. She looked deep into my eyes with a bone to pick, and I was the bone.
“None of us got off the boat in New Zealand,” she said. “We have no business there.”
“Maybe I can learn something to bring home, Nellie,” I blurted, unable to think of a better reply.
“Well, if you are going to leave, Vern, just get your sorry ass on the plane and leave your people behind. Your ghetto pass has been revoked!” Dr. McKay didn’t actually say this; it just felt like she did.
And, as I told the folks on the bus that morning, leave I did, rarely coming back for the next four years. I didn’t even register to vote in the 2000 presidential election. And that same year I swore allegiance to the Queen of England and became a citizen of New Zealand. Did I really care about the USA? A good part of me had given up on America.
Later, watching Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, I winced as African-American members of Congress were gaveled down as they testified against black disenfranchisement in Florida. I hadn’t been aware that the congressional black caucus had fought so hard to get justice for black folks denied the right to vote.
What was I doing to help the struggle that had gone on since slavery for an equal voice and place in U.S. society? Klansmen had chased black men, women and children through dark forests and strung them up without trial. Civil-rights workers had been hosed and beaten and killed—even after fighting for America in wars abroad—and here I was relaxing down under helping another country educate its youth.
Here I was, upset at the 2000 election “results,” and I hadn’t even bothered to vote. Shame on me.
Such was the tirade that spewed from my mouth that morning on the bus. As I dropped the microphone and slowly returned to my seat, a sister said, “I was tired when you started speaking, but I am wide awake now!”Cruising
So we talked to the group, each of us, and then had quiet time to chat, read novels, stare out the window at the New Mexico and Oklahoma countryside, talk about jobs and the economy, sing praises to Michelle Obama, eat potato chips and drink sodas from those water coolers in the back, and generally bounce around the bus making friends with writers, accountants, athletes, teachers, divorced parents or the occasional ex-con or ex-Black Panther.
The truck stops always produced startled faces and animated conversations with white Southerners who wondered how Obama was going to do as president and marveled at how adventurous we were to drive to the inauguration on a bus. We watched movies—Panther (about Oakland’s Black Panther Party’s founding days) and Head of State (with Chris Rock playing the first black president)—at night and sang at all hours to James Brown (“Say it Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud!”) and Curtis Mayfield and Sam Cooke taking us to our emotional edge with our trip’s anthem: “It’s been long time coming, but I know change is gonna come.”Young Blood
Occasionally, though, there were reminders of why I had fled to New Zealand.
Early one morning, at a gas station near Memphis, two young brothers got out of a raggedy car, and one of them made a beeline for the Obama bus.
“Trouble,” I thought. With his baggy pants sagging, hat to the side, long jacket and shirt, he was the kind of guy I thought would shoot me if he knew I had $100 in my pocket.”
What Young Blood did next was completely unexpected.
He ran back to his car—not to get a gun, but to get his American flag and his “Yes We Can” hat and his camera to take photos next to the Obama bus. He was patriotic, down, black and proud, and he was the future. After the photos were taken, he walked back to his car, turned and waved his American flag goodbye as we all waved at him.
I checked myself for stereotyping Young Blood just as I had been stereotyped so many times before. I realized that, after 14 years in self-imposed exile, I had to learn to love all black people—all over again.
Even the folks we met at the truck stops along our Southern route—the “hillbillies” and “rednecks,” as I once referred to them—had kind words for the new president. Some even said that, although they didn’t vote for Obama, they wished him and the country well. They accepted us with little reservation—and yet I had little time for Young Blood.The unthinkable
“Obama could be shot.”
This was the unthinkable thought that everybody on the bus had. Obama seemed unfazed by the threat, however. In that respect he was a better man than I am.
I never considered entering politics because I was paranoid about gunfire; I was in New Zealand because I was paranoid about gunfire; I had lived most of my life paranoid about gunfire, ever since a day in 1969, when I was 11 years old.
I was a pretty normal kid—had an Oakland Tribune paper route, ate Winchell’s donuts weekly, loved going to A’s games and watching Reggie Jackson hit home runs, and tried in vain to impress Margie Davis with my various bicycle tricks.
One afternoon I was hanging with five neighborhood friends when something happened that changed my life.
We bounced up the street telling tall tales and bragging about our sports prowess when suddenly we heard noises that sounded like firecrackers. We went toward the noise, as kids will do, and saw a man gasping for air on the ground. He had just stumbled out of his car and lay near our feet, on the edge of the street. There were three holes in the windshield of his car. His blood was mixing with the oil on the parking space right there in front us.
We looked at each other with fearful eyes and a strange sense of urgency. “Where is the ambulance?” my friend Ramon finally said. No answers. So we just stared, mumbled our confusion, wondering when someone would come to help. Nobody came, so we just left him there. I walked home wondering what it must feel like to sense your life slowly slipping away, knowing there was no help and no hope.
That moment stayed with me all my life. From that day forward Momma warned me to run when I saw a gun pulled in Oakland (which was more often than you’d think). “Bullets do not have names on them,” she said ominously.
In Oakland when I was growing up, the biggest life lesson my mother tried to instill in me wasn’t about studying hard or marrying the right woman or saving for the future. It was about staying alive.The reception
After traveling for three days and nights, we finally arrived in Washington, D.C., where we were scheduled to attend an inauguration-eve reception being hosted by Oakland’s congresswoman, Barbara Lee.
The good news was that we’d been able to stop at our hotel and clean up and actually lie down to rest for the first time since we’d left Jack London Square. The bad news was that the closest hotel the trip organizers had been able to find that could accommodate all of us was in Harrisburg, Pa., four hours from Washington.
At the reception, women scurried about looking important in semi-formal black dresses and high heels. Men sporting suits and ties glided around, smiling widely. Just being in that middle-class crowd in that swanky congressional meeting room, with its free food, soft music and large bathrooms, was good enough for me.
These black folks were “feeling it.” It was like Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve and Thanksgiving rolled into one. There had been no bigger “eve” in our history.The inauguration
By the time we pulled ourselves out of the reception at 9 p.m. to return to our hotel, several of us did the math: We would get only two hours of sleep in the hotel before we had to return for the inauguration. Sleep-deprived as we were, we figured it would be better to stay up all night in a pub drinking “Obama Ale” with the jubilant throngs near the capital.
It was a bright idea at the time. I was not feeling so bright standing—shivering—outside the gates to the Washington Mall at 6 a.m. with my Dunkin’ donut and coffee. It was frostbite cold.
But at 7:15 a couple million of my new best friends and I pushed through the gates and made a mad dash toward the Capitol. The closest I could get was the third JumboTron, dead center of the Mall. Three white girls huddled on the ground in front of me, staying close enough to share body heat. The two brothas from around the way—standing to my right—had their entire faces bundled with scarves. Lucky me: My cold-weather gear was back in my hotel room.
By 8 the sun was shining, but it was still freezing cold—18 degrees. The first musical acts drifted onto the stage, and some of the politicians began their parade out of the Capitol onto the general seating area. The white guy standing with his party friends to my left yelled “Yeeehaaawww!” when Howard Dean walked onto the stage. It sounded exactly like Howard Dean’s fatal campaign yelp in 2004, so we all had a good belly laugh to start our morning.
My personal highlight—and sign of the approaching love apocalypse—was Garth Brooks leading 2 million people singing and dancing to “Shout,” by Otis Day and the Knights. It was a postmodern American moment: A white guy (Garth Brooks) was singing a song by a black guy (Otis Day) from a movie about white guys (Animal House) in which Otis Day and his black band were dissed by white college students (“I’m studying primitive cultures”) in front of 2 million black and white people celebrating the first black president.
And then it happened—the Obama family strode joyfully down the long hallway and into the daylight and there was pandemonium in the house. We waved those flags and jumped and yelled “Yeah, baby!” and laughed and glowed, and those tears … yes, those tears … flowed and had no color. Can you be in love with an entire family? Yes you can.
Barack Obama finally made his way to the podium. Michelle held the Bible at his side. This was it, the history I had rolled into as the last person allowed on that bus. From this moment on, the way we looked at ourselves—as black people and, with luck, as Americans—would shift forever. All children would know that there were no limitations that could not be overcome.
In 2002, I had given a speech at Chico State during which I expressed my alienation from my country, saying that I never waved the flag and was decidedly unpatriotic. Now my black ass was waving the Star and Stripes on the Magic Mall, and I was feeling big-time patriotic. I finally got it. This is what it feels like to love America.
In the blur of tears and camera flashes and hugs all around and flags waving, I knew this moment was more than about me, our bus or black folks. Black and white alike and people from all walks of life and all of America’s multitudinous groups—gays and lesbians, the elderly, Asians, Hispanics, rednecks, Republicans, church folks and young bloods everywhere—had helped in this victory.
So I asked myself: How will I help Barack Obama reshape America, my new home, my new country, my shiny new unfinished republic? As I told my mother when I got back from the inauguration, “I am no longer afraid. I’m moving back home.” If Obama can face the nation and fight his fears, then so can I.