Where hope has wrestled with fear
I could not have imagined that less than four years later, he would be elected president.
His name was so unfamiliar, I kept stumbling over it during our 45-minute interview about the role of race in his life and in his politics. Was it Barack Obama or Obama Barack?
The next morning, unbidden, he called me back.
“Hey Sandy,” he said. “This is Barack. I’ve been thinking about what we talked about, and I wanted to add some thoughts.”
By the time we finished our second chat, there were two things I thought I knew:
Barack Obama was determined to force this country to confront its “legacy of slavery.”
And what he was asking -- and offering -- was too much for a nation still bitterly divided by skin color.
“His candidacy would make this country squirm and shudder and maybe even come unglued,” I wrote back then.
Clearly, I underestimated him -- and us.
How could I have been so wrong? Last week, as Obama closed in on the presidency, I went back to my hometown to look for answers.
Cleveland was a step up for my parents. My father’s family fled Georgia in the 1920s, one step ahead of a lynch mob set on teaching my uncle a lesson for daring to sass a white man. Twenty years later, my mother led her siblings north from a farm in Alabama. She met my father in Cleveland. They married, and I was the oldest of their four children.
When I grew up in the 1960s, the city was so segregated -- blacks on the east side, whites on the west -- it might as well have been the Deep South. In my 25 years in Cleveland, the only time I remember crossing the Cuyahoga River was on a school bus for a field trip to the zoo.
Our family chased the American dream: good schools, a safe neighborhood, financial security. But when we moved up to a bigger home on a nicer block, the white neighbors around us began to move out.
Most of my classmates at Miles Elementary were the children of immigrants from the east side’s ethnic enclaves: Migliore, Slivka, Trankito, Kowalski, Milovich, McFarland, Manzo. By the time I reached John F. Kennedy High, their families had scattered. My 1972 graduating class had 900 students, all but four of them black.
I left for California in 1979 and tracked Cleveland’s changes on trips back to visit my sisters. Twenty years later, drug addiction and joblessness had taken such a toll on my once-comfortable neighborhood that Domino’s refused to deliver a pizza to my family home. Its drivers had been robbed once too often.
On this most recent trip, I was trying to understand what an Obama presidency might signify and what it took for America to reach this point.
I found a city eager to buy the hope Obama was selling, yet wrestling with generations-old grudges and fears.
“When you live in a segregated city like Cleveland, where the city is divided east-west, black-white, you can’t help but be suspicious, even fearful, of each other,” Anna Kormos told me as we sat on the front porch of her childhood home on Cleveland’s west side, a Hillary Clinton campaign sign still in her front yard.
She wasn’t sure then who she’d vote for. “I was raised as a die-hard Democrat,” she said. But she found Obama a little too stage-managed, bordering on arrogant and too much of an unknown entity. And she was beyond disappointed that he hadn’t picked Clinton as his running mate.
Still, his candidacy had led her to think through her own feelings on race. “I thought I was pretty open-minded,” she said, “but maybe I had an unfounded fear of black people who were not like me.”
As the presidential campaign wore on, she started waving to the black teens who’d moved onto her block -- boys with low-slung pants and swagger in their attitude. And eventually, one returned her greeting.
She became friendly with a black woman down the street and found out they were more alike than not. They both admire Hillary Clinton, are both helping care for elderly mothers and have similar philosophies about raising children.
“It took me down a path of ‘Wow, we have all these things in common.’ ” She credits Obama with helping her bridge that gap.
Still, on Tuesday she carried her doubts into the voting booth. “I must have sat there for an hour, thinking and praying that I’d do the right thing.”
Then she dropped the idea of writing in Clinton’s name and voted for Obama.
“He might be the best president we ever had. But even if he’s the biggest jerk in the world, he’s done an awesome thing for this country already.”
Across town, in a tiny eastside pocket of whites, I found resentment rather than soul-searching.
The four guys hanging out on Bill Burke’s porch, in a neighborhood known as Slavic Village, made no secret where their loyalties lay. Two McCain signs were stuck in the tiny patch of lawn.
But when I asked what they liked about McCain, all they talked about was Obama.
The new president may speak to our future hopes, but these jobless construction workers are mourning the past, when their neighborhood felt like a small-town oasis, with sports leagues, good neighbors and well-paying blue-collar jobs.
They measure hard times not just by factory closings and boarded-up houses, but by shuttered taverns, the working man’s haven.
“Twenty years ago, there were 50 bars in this neighborhood,” Burke told me. “You know how many there are now? Six.”
They expect a President Obama to bring industry back. But when I asked why he wouldn’t get their votes, they shouted over one another in what felt to me like angry rants:
About Section 8 housing subsidies that let welfare families into the homes their parents’ generation left. About burglaries at boarded-up homes down the block. About the recent robbery of a white teen at gunpoint “in broad daylight.”
“One of the neighbors chased the guy down and called police. He’s a hero,” said Burke, who owns a struggling construction company. And the black guy with the gun was another reason not to vote for Obama.
It’s not racism, Burke told me. He went to a high school that was 90% black and married a woman who is part Mexican. “I’m talking to you,” he said. “Doesn’t that tell you something?”
He and his working-class buddies no longer know where they fit. At this time, in this city, in a neighborhood that’s no longer a Slavic village, they’re uncomfortably in the minority. And they’re fearful that they’ll be further squeezed if blacks are empowered by an Obama presidency.
Only one of the four didn’t seem worried. He was young, with spiky hair and jeans hanging low on his hips. “He’s a wigger,” Burke told me, and laughter erupted. That’s the hip-hop term for white kids who want to be black.
“Always dancing, singing rap songs. . . . Go on, show them,” Burke said. The young man laughed easily and waved them off. He may not have black friends -- at least not that his buddies know of -- but the culture has grabbed hold of him.
That cultural shift helped pave the way for Obama’s historic victory. Cleveland’s schools may not be racially integrated, but black and white youths share space in the public domain. They listen to the same music, scour one another’s MySpace pages; they’re eager to cross boundaries.
I saw more interracial couples in my three days in Cleveland than I did in the first 25 years of my life.
People changed because they had to, because the world changed around them. By the time this brown-skinned man with the funny name showed up, the notion of a black president didn’t seem so outlandish, or so threatening.
But it’s as much about Obama as about us. He seems to know intuitively how to reach out in a way that inspires trust.
That’s what made LeShaunte McCray vote for Obama, he told me as he waited at the Board of Elections for his mother, two sisters and two brothers to finish casting ballots.
And it’s why he plans to join the Army now that the votes have been counted. “I’ve got so much faith in Obama and in the country,” McCray said. “He knows where I’m coming from.”
McCray, 24, got laid off from his job as a sheet metal worker last fall. Found another, got laid off again. He lost his car and his apartment. Now he pays for his bus pass by doing odd jobs and sells his plasma to a blood bank when he can’t find work.
He has three children, ages 4, 3 and 1. “The Army . . . the money, the benefits, an education. That’s for them. And I’d rather have a man in office with a heart if I’m putting my life out there to fight.”
He says it’s not Obama’s race that won his vote. “I was just as excited when Bill Clinton won,” he said. “I just feel like [Obama] cares about us. He sees no color. Everybody’s the same. And everybody came to the same conclusion: We have got to help each other.”
But both blacks and whites seemed aware of the fragility of the moment.
“You don’t want to piss any black people off,” a young, white cellphone company employee told me at the bar of my downtown hotel, only half-joking. “They’re about to be in charge.”
Blacks reflected a different kind of pressure, an obligation not to do anything that might activate white anxiety.
Lois Lane, a 59-year-old black woman born and raised in Georgia, smiled broadly at the white woman who held the door for her at the Board of Elections near downtown.
She’d made a point of donning a red, white and blue sweater for the bus ride from East Cleveland.
She walks with difficulty, partly paralyzed by a stroke. But “I wouldn’t have missed this day,” she told me after she voted. “It’s our time.”
Looking back over the campaign, Obama’s appeal seems sort of hokey and naive. The simple slogans, the earnest phrases: Hope. Change. Yes, we can.
Maybe the only man who could get away with such simplicity is one who understands the complicated nature of the journey we’re on.
We have to earn racial reconciliation, he told me in that 2005 interview. “In the same way I earned . . . a sense of resolution between the white half of me and the black half of me,” he said.
“I struggled and made mistakes and tried to be honest with myself. . . . We shouldn’t be lazy or complacent or pat ourselves on the back. We have a distance to travel. . . . We’re not there yet.”
But on Tuesday, in an election that spoke volumes about our chance for success, America took a first, big step.