Tuesday is November 7. For the rest of my life, I expect I’ll remember another November 7, the one in 2020, three years ago.
It was a beautiful day, soft and warm and sunny, a perfect Indian summer morning that only improved as it went on. Before noon, the AP, CNN and other national media outlets reported that the counts and recounts were over in Pennsylvania, and it was official: The state belonged to Biden, and so did the presidency. Immediately, and I do mean immediately, the celebration started. Within a couple minutes, a friend in D.C. posted a video of the celebrations spreading through town. I recall the sound of cowbells and banging pans from balconies on high-rise buildings, the way we greet the new year, which it was. And it only went on from there.
My friend Dustin called and suggested we play some miniature golf, the exact sort of activity such a day called for. The course at our local park was closed for the season, so we ended up in Clinton Township, Trump country for sure. (“Metro Detroit’s Donbas region,” another friend calls it.) There was no open sobbing, so we played two or three rounds, checking our phones for reaction as the news settled in. One friend kept texting the highlights, mostly video snippets from Twitter. One showed people dancing in the street in New York City, singing “Heeeeyy, Donald Tru-ump! I want to knooo-ow why you’re such a cunt!” Laughter and hugging was the order of the day.
In 2016, I walked the dog early the day after the election, still shell-shocked by the result. I passed a man on the street who beamed at me with a note of smugness on his face, and I decided to pay it back four years later. But either the Detroit Donbas hadn’t heard the news yet or no one would let it ruin a perfect day, so I didn’t get to smug-smile at anyone, but still, I couldn’t stop smiling. Our long national nightmare was over. We’d be getting back to normal. The fever had broken. It’d be OK again.
Three years later, it’s useful to remember these feelings, and curse my naiveté, and remember another beautiful November day that didn’t turn out the way it promised to. That was November 4, 2008, the day Barack Obama was elected president, in an election with results no one contested. I watched from my couch in Michigan; I was working nights, from home, as an editor, and often kept the TV on to keep from falling asleep. All the channels were carrying Obama’s speech in Grant Park that night, the cameras panning the faces of ecstatic people, black and white but mostly black, tears running down their faces. Neil Steinberg was there, with his son, then 13, and wrote movingly about the mood that night:
All the vantage points were taken, so I went up to a group crowding around a gap in the fencing, pushed Ross ahead, and said, to no one in particular, “Could this boy take a look, just for a moment?” A large black woman turned, regarded him, and then commanded those in front of her, “Let the baby through!” and they parted, affording Ross and me a momentary glimpse of the future president, a tiny figure, far away. I thought of that famous photo of Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address, a distant, barely recognizable speck in a multitude.
But that wasn’t the moment that lodged in my heart. That came afterward, when a quarter of a million people flowed from the park to Michigan Avenue, buoyant with victory, intoxicated with promise and possibility and hope, filling the street from curb to curb, from Roosevelt Road to the Wrigley Building. They were in their new Obama t-shirts and in church clothes, whole families, including wide-eyed toddlers, some cheering, some walking in quiet, careful formality.
Promise and possibility and hope – that’s what I was feeling that night, too. We’d dealt a serious blow to racism; it wouldn’t die, because no evil that entrenched can die with one election, but the United States, a country with racism as its original sin, had turned its back on it, decisively. It felt like a curse had been lifted.
Within days, we started hearing about the grumbling in the Republican Party about Obama’s election, which you’d expect, but the nature of it was disturbing. Memes showing the White House lawn turned into a watermelon patch. Obama in Tarzan-movie tribal gear, a bone through his nose. And these didn’t come from some sewer on the far right. These were memes forwarded with LOLs from county chairs and other party officials, who when confronted protested with hey-it’s-funny-can’t-you-take-a-joke? Soon we’d learn about the election-night meeting of congressional Republicans, where they vowed they’d simply dig in their heels and make Obama a one-term president. Michelle Obama made some comment about living in a house built by slaves, and Republicans roared in protest, even though she was right. Soon, another of these charmers would call her an “ape in heels.” And upon that they’d build the he’s-gay-and-she’s-a-man libel, and go on from there.
You guys were all there. You know.
I’m remembering all this…not sure why. The calendar, yes, but maybe because these are exceptionally grim times, and it’s easy now to see the bad that was waiting just behind the good. As Steinberg also wrote a while back, Trump is the whistle on the tea kettle; you can take the whistle off, but the water is still boiling. I recall another story I heard about election night in 2008, how as John McCain prepared to make his gracious concession speech, his staff had to practically put his running mate, Sarah Palin, in a straitjacket, as she too wanted to speak, to “her people.” Her people would eventually gain critical mass and be the MAGA base. She was the wicked fairy at Sleeping Beauty’s christening, with another curse, one that wouldn’t be felt for a few more years.
I spend a little time, many days, googling the realities of expatriation. I doubt we’d ever do it, but if these recent years have taught me anything, it’s that we don’t know yet how bad things can get. Who’d have ever thought the Senate majority leader could flat-out steal a Supreme Court seat? And yet it happened.
But today and tomorrow, I’ll think about November 7, 2020, the jubilance, the literal dancing in the streets, the perfect weather. We don’t have to fret all the time.
Here’s a picture I took that day, of Dustin with his spirit animal on the giraffe hole. The dead leaves and yellowing plants reveal the time of year, leading into winter. But if winter comes, as the poet asked, can spring be far behind? Let’s keep our fingers crossed.