Thursday, November 6, 2008

Powerful People. by Patresa Hartman

Election night was a full evening. I taught in the writing lab where I worked with another "lost boy" from Sudan, T. One of my coworkers brought in an old voting machine used for the 1936 election during which Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated Alf Landon for a second term as President. The drab green voting stand included pegs and levers enabling you to vote a straight party ticket using one large switch, or vote individually across parties using smaller gadgets. T fiddled with the pegs and asked me who I thought would win our presidential race that night.

I told him I thought Obama would win.

He nodded excitedly. I learned from T that he had earned his American citizenship and had already voted. He said he did not understand why so many people live here for such a long time and never vote. "In my country, no one gets to vote."

T, whose written English is surprisingly good, also told me that he had never been to school before he came to the U.S. He came here as a teenager, an unaccompanied minor like J, another "lost boy" I work with on Tuesday nights. "Imagine," he said, "never preschool or kindergarten or anything and then right away you go to high school."

Of course, I couldn't imagine. So many privileges we have here. This is a good country.

I left T and the writing lab past dark, drove home where my husband and I went together to our polling place. The parking lot was full; the voting booths were full; but the lines were passed. After our ballots were cast, we stopped for the exit poll from the media.

Two young black men with tattoos, one with a silver grill and pants sagging, stood in fretful discussion with one of the polling volunteers. The man with the grill left the woman and approached my husband. "My brother doesn't have a photo ID and they won't let him vote unless somebody says they know him and that he lives in this precinct. Would you just tell her you know him?"

Behind him, the volunteer said, "It has to be someone you actually know." The man left with his brother. We finished our exit polls and went back to the car, finding the two men on cell phones in the parking lot, clearly trying to find someone to come over and attest to identy and residence. I went home nervous that they wouldn't be allowed to vote. My husband reasoned it was their own fault; they weren't prepared. I said, "but it's such a confusing process. I don't understand it, either. I just happen to exist in a circle of people who do know what's going on and give me directions." The process, it seemed to me, was really designed for people who had access to particular resources. I wasn't sure if that was fair or not.

This morning in my reading labs, one of my students, a kind and outgoing young man -- a firefighter in a neighboring town -- immigrated from Mexico as a child. He is a citizen. He said that when he voted, they thought he was "an illegal." The police pulled him aside and questioned him for five minutes before he was finally allowed to vote. Another of my Latino students said the same thing happened to him on the south side of town. We chuckled half-heartedly that you would think they'd been trying to buy crack instead of cast a vote.

I also awoke to learn that Proposition 8 was likely passed in California, and my friend, K, who lives in San Francisco and married his partner of ten years, T, several weeks ago, may now feel invalidated and unsupported, his right to marry, taken just as quickly as it was granted.

Somewhere in the middle of my elation that things are turning up, that there is giant undeniable evidence of hope and progress, lingers the question: We are a powerful people; when will we learn to use our power more lovingly?

My gratitude today is a confused gratitude. I am so grateful for the opportunity to vote, to participate. I am so grateful to live in this country. I am so proud of the unity we exhibited yesterday, of how excited people are. I am so thankful that President-elect Obama has dared to take on the incredibly heavy weight of this country and its precarious state. I can't imagine the pressure and burden that comes with knowing millions of people believe you alone will deliver them.

But I am somber, too. I don't want us to stop here. I am eager for us to continue our evolution. I want us to be better. Don't you?

*I know this post is way beyond the 350 word count. I feel so full, I don't know how to prune.


Angie Ledbetter said...

Yep, life is usually a mixed bag of emotions. I guess we just need to focus on the more positive aspects more of the time. :) I AM glad people have registered and/or voted for the first time and hope that trend holds locally and nationally from now on.

Barbara Quinn said...

It's an imperfect system that I'd love to see some change come to, but it's still a great system, one that I'm proud to be a part of. That said, getting rid of the electoral college and relying on the popular vote makes sense, doesn't it? I love Obama's Yes, We Can change things motif.But inherent in that call is the fact that we have to continue to take an interest in civic affairs to effect change, for it's not just about an presidential election. O has a tough road ahead. Still, I'm prouder than ever to be an American!

Kathryn Magendie said...

I have written three comments and erased all three....for I can't form my words the way I want to form them in this short comment - my comment would be long, just as you say your post is!

So, I will simply say ...what a great post -

Patresa Hartman said...

so embarrassed.

i forgot i was posting today, forgot i had a draft scheduled, forgot to edit. could have pruned. feeling prideful.


but thanks. :)

Barbara Quinn said...

p, don't worry, be happy. :-)

Barry said...

Excellent post Patricia. As a Canadian, I've watched your election unfolding without the ability to participate, knowing the outcome will have a tremendous impact on my country and the world.

You are privileged and I am grateful.

Lisa G. said...

Thank you, for this.

Listen to our Podcasts