This morning, as I watched an elderly black couple board a full subway car, a seemingly unremarkable series of events occurred: a young white woman rose and offered her seat, then a middle-aged Hispanic man did likewise. America at its best, in a nutshell, right? But it wasn’t so long ago that America didn’t work that way — as these two old folks doubtless knew better than I. With the election mere days away, I wondered: what would an Obama presidency mean to them? My emotional response was immediate and shocking. I had to turn my mind away from the thought to keep from bursting out in tears somewhere between 96th and 103rd Streets.
I don’t know anything about these two people, I don’t know how they’ve struggled, I don’t know where their political sympathies lie. Maybe they aren’t Obama supporters; it doesn’t matter: I can easily imagine two more just like them who are, and I can make the leap to imagining that an Obama victory could be the sort of victory that justifies all they went through, that makes it all worthwhile in the end. Because they would have seen this happen, in their own lifetimes, with their own eyes.
Like I said, I don’t know anything about these two people, other than their age and skin color (but I repeat myself). Yet the narrative I facilely superimposed on them acted on me with tremendous force, and if I think about it only out of the corner of my brain, I can understand why. Freedom and justice are two of my most vulnerable emotional pressure points.
My ability to empathize with fictional people notwithstanding, for me Obama represents neither freedom nor justice. I fear his presidency almost as much as I suspect I’d like him personally. (In the interest of fair and balanced commentary: I fear McCain’s presidency far more than I’d probably like him personally.)
I don’t want to be 80 before my country shows signs of offering me the freedom and justice I deserved all along. I don’t want a symbolic shift that’s enough to let me finally die in peace. I want my government to recognize and protect my rights. I want it soon, so that my life can be the better for it. I want my own liberation in my lifetime.
P.S. If you think I’m a jerk for even making this comparison, then you’ve just been a jerk. Don’t presume to tell other people what their oppression feels like, let alone whose is more valid.