Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Obama won the presidency. The night was revelatory, ecstatic, transformative, amazing, unbelievable said the people I talked to that night, which also happened to be the first night of my video camera ownership experience. Standing in front of the White House, as I tried to control the zooming, I recorded the gathering of a small group of friends from southern California who expressed relief that health care help was on the way. I managed to hold a steady frame on two serious young men from the Netherlands who predicted an improved image for the U.S. abroad. Less of the rough conqueror image, one said. An older woman from AFL-CIO, who canvassed for Eugene McCarthy in 1964, felt vindicated. Another woman, younger, was pleased by the turnout of voters, especially among young people. A man wearing a suit and a very wide grin exclaimed what felt like a personal accomplishment at having won by states – Pennsylvania, Ohio, Colorado, Wisconsin, New Mexico – to name a few. On the screen in the lobby behind him, Jesse Jackson was seen crying.
As I review the 35 minutes of wobbly footage, the insights of people witnessing this time and place in history, I am struck by the background noise. For the most part, the background consists of loud, long shouting. There was high young shouting of 20-something women. There was my partner Bob, who, by the nature of our relationship, was heard frequently with his arms-raised baritone bellow. An abundance of AH and OO sounds overall. Nasal and guttural. There was also a delightful whistle I especially liked. A gym whistle wielded by an older man with the enthusiasm of a 13 year old boy. He whistled and waved. He whistled and jumped. He wanted to make some noise, he said. He was adorable.
Beneath this din of the long tone – high, low, and shrill – was a three-syllable beat. I don't think it was randomly chosen. It was heard in chants as well as in accompanying rhythm. One chant everybody outside that night could hear over and over was his name, the incantation of our leader in rally-style fervor. It was heard most certainly inside the walls of the White House (a friend who writes for the Washington Post tells me the White House is not sound proof. You cannot see into or out of the windows, but you can hear noise from the street.) The chant of our three-syllable President-elect's name echoed all the way to the ears of the deposed. Deposed is not quite right, but the feeling that we have overcome, that we have triumphed against tyranny and injustice; that we organized a critical segment of the state apparatus, which we then used to displace the government from its control of the remainder . . . this was nothing short of a coup d'état. But as I was saying, it was his name, O-BA-MA,O-BA-MA, O-BA-MA we heard on the rain-soaked streets, under the red, yes red, sky.
The second of the two chants was YES-WE-DID (formerly YES-WE-CAN.) A remarkably effective cheer, not unlike the songs played in the bleachers during high school and college basketball games. YES-WE-DID has the persistence of a marching tune but for it's 3-beat time. A waltz has a 3-beat, or 3 / 4 time. In the 19th century the waltz primarily indicated that the dance was a turning one, the dancers rotating rather than proceeding straight forward. The celebration on the night of November 4th 2008 was certainly about turning, about changing directions and stepping away from the previous path.
People in the crowd in front of the White House were mostly young, tirelessly cheering past midnight. But there were some standing in the back against the chain-link fence who have seen many elections. I approached an older African-American man and his two adult sons for comment. I'm ecstatic, said one son. The other asked his Dad if he wanted to say anything. He declined and looked up at the rain coming down. Tears of joy? Exactly, said the son.
Along with O-BA-MA and YES-WE-DID we heard the three-beat rhythm in claps, in drums and in police sirens. We saw police when they stopped their cars to close off a street to traffic as it filled with people; police who were smiling and hugging one another (a cadet was directing traffic in her Obama t-shirt) and blowing their blow horn-ish loud speaker brap, brap, braps. Cars and their horns contributed to the chanting. Some stuck to the three beats. Many had their own signature rhythm. All could be heard throughout the city. I know this because my friend Yael and I had to walk home from the White House. No busses. No taxis. Three miles of car horns, flag waving, long tone shouting and three beat shouting. When we got close to U St., the neighborhood we live in, a new crowd appeared. Another dancing-in-the-streets celebration. The same chants.
The same drums. This election. This historical night. We made history. Yes we did. Yes we did.
Eleanor Graves holds an MFA in Poetry from George Mason University. She was the recipient of the Mary Rinehart Prize for Poetry in 2005 and was awarded a Thesis Fellowship by George Mason University the same year. Her poems have appeared in Phoebe, Practice: New Writing + Art, and in Hayden’s Ferry Review. She has led poetry workshops for young people at the Freer and Sackler Galleries and for grown-ups at the Split this Rock Festival. Eleanor currently leads workshops for the non-profit writing group, Capitol Letters.
Eleanor hopes to get her video online of the
festivities in DC online as soon as she sorts out the technology