Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Why I Voted for Obama

by special guest blogger Yo Miss! (formerly in Bushwick)

I voted last week. I marked my absentee ballot for Sen. Barack Obama. I stamped it, dropped it in the mail, and listened for the smooth sounds of the wheels of democracy chugging along as it fell into the mailbox. It was a nice moment, as I had been dreaming about voting for Sen. Obama since his game-changing speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Just a moment ago, in fact, I received an e-mail from the campaign telling me that I was one of the first 100,000 people to "own a piece of the campaign," meaning that I was among Sen. Obama's first donors for his Presidential campaign. I was incredibly proud when I read that e-mail, and while I know he's looking for money, I also know that we still have 3 weeks left in a campaign that is increasingly contentious (to put it mildly) and that money is still needed to print signs, drive voters to polling places, make phone calls, and keep the dream of a new kind of President alive. Y'all accept MasterCard, right?

Why did I vote for Sen. Obama? In the four years since I have first become acquainted with the man's beliefs, my reasons have multiplied and developed many times over. His speech in 2004 was a thing of rare beauty--hopeful, honest, and without cynicism--in American politics. Intrigued, I read his first book and was again amazed by what Sen. Obama seemed to offer: moral clarity and courage without ideological blinders, confidence without smugness, and above all an openness and curiosity about himself and the world that will now enable him to hold his ground with anyone else on the world stage. I thought, as surely many others did, "This guy should run for President." We were already staring down the barrel of a second Bush Presidency that would be ruinous in every imaginable sense for our country, and the stirrings in this country for change had begun.

In 2006, I read Sen. Obama's second book, a more overtly political vision of where our country is and where it could be, where it should be. Gov. Sarah Palin has suggested that Sen. Obama hates America, but she clearly never read the man's own words in either of his books. I'm not sure why an America-hater would admire so many American politicians, why an America-hater would want to lift up the political discourse in this country, why an America-hater would believe that American voters deserve better than pandering. Sen. Obama's adult life has been devoted to public service, and while it may not look like Sen. McCain's service or Sen. Clinton's service, I fail to see how turning down six-figure salaries from large law firms to go out and work on the streets of Chicago on behalf of the poor and voiceless is not an example of sacrificial service in the interest of all that is good about one's country.

But my support for Sen. Obama never seemed so urgent or so real until I taught middle school social studies in New York City. In my classroom, there are many students who do not come from "Joe Sixpack" families. They are, like Sen. Obama himself, being raised by single parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, older siblings. Or they are immigrants, starting kindergarten speaking Mandarin, Spanish, or Russian. Or they simply don't look like the America some of us grew up with, and against them we may see used the same tactics as those currently being used to smear Sen. Obama. "She's from Pakistan," an opponent might coo, fifteen or twenty years down the road, when one of my students runs for City Council. "That's where the TERRORISTS are from, you know." Never mind that this girl may have lived on a quiet street in Flushing for almost her entire life, reading teenage-girl novels and wearing blue jeans and watching American Idol. Just as Sen. Obama spent most of his life in Hawaii, in Kansas, in California, in New York, in Illinois--a diverse collection of American experience. I hear the anger of my students about how Sen. Obama's life is portrayed as un-American, and it's not hard to understand why: Because if his experience is not American, then neither is theirs. They, too, could be smeared as unpatriotic, as exotic. They would be the subject of the question, "What do we really know about this guy?"

The children I teach need a leader, a hero--not because they are poor, or nonwhite, or immigrant, but because their American experience, their uniquely American experience, is being held up as strange, even wrong. I cannot imagine what these children must hear and subsequently feel when a childhood spent among people of non-Christian faiths, of nonwhite skin, of non-American nationality is looked upon and spoken about with suspicion and denigration, because that, in some respect, is the life of every single child I teach. My children have amazing dreams, amazing life stories, some of them, at the tender ages of twelve or thirteen, and a big part of the American dream is that anyone here can grow up to be President....right?

So, as corny as it sounds, think of the children. Think of the children in American schools--because I can guarantee you that they are watching and listening to this election very closely. They are passionately interested. They hear their parents worrying about paying the bills, or they have watched boyfriends or girlfriends or older siblings go off to Iraq. They can hear the subtle racism and fear-mongering in speeches and rallies. I doubt they will easily forgive or forget the casual disregard of their lives and their American experience by politicians who would do or say anything at this point to win. If you really believe that America is about more than skin color, more than national origin, more than what one's family looks like--if you really believe that America is a collection of ideals, ideals of freedom, fairness, and hope for everyone born here or coming here with thoughts of a better life--then please question what you hear, even from yourself, and consider very carefully what your vote means for the Americans of the future. The Americans that may have been born somewhere else, Americans who may not "look like you," but whose dreams are probably very much the same.
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