We Did It: Dispatch from Columbia City

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John Roderick is the frontman of Seattle's The Long Winters. He is a regular contributor to SeattleWeekly.com.

On election night I wanted to be surrounded by black people. I didn’t have any doubts about the outcome, and I wanted to be somewhere where an Obama victory would resonate more fully than in the shallow enclaves of the youth culture I normally inhabit.

As gladdening as it’s been to see such a cross-section of America galvanized around this election, newly activist Democrats tend to be didactic and unnuanced, more Trotskyite than I have stomach for. The hand-wringing liberalism of urban whites has grown into a tiresome drone, a preaching-to-the-choir where the choir preaches back and no one can sing. An Obama victory would be a truly world-historical event, for sure, but I couldn’t quite sign up for the breathless liberation theology being promulgated by my clique of tech-savvy artists and indie-rockers. Obama was going to set them free from what, exactly? Free from having to read John Cusack write about torture in the Huffington Post?

A majority of Americans elected George Bush twice, and most of these newly passionate believers were passive do-nothings only four years ago. I had no enthusiasm for spending election night on Capitol Hill watching the clientele of the Cha-Cha Lounge act like it was the liberation of Paris in 1944.

In contrast, black Americans had so much more at stake. All those decades of suppressing their hopes, of mitigating their disappointment, and of diminishing their expectations had created a pent-up desire and a bated enthusiasm that, when finally released, might explode like a super-nova. I wanted to feel the thrill of that moment of revelation, the lightning bolt of realization that three-hundred-plus years of larceny and double-dealing would be trumped, and I wanted to be where his victory was felt not just as triumph, but as a vindication. Once Obama secured his victory there would surely be months and years of recalibrating. Mistrust and resentment between the races wasn’t going to disappear overnight. Still, after so many martyrs, for a man this decent to win a prize this great would have to be felt deeply and profoundly by every black American.

So I hoofed it down to the Royal Esquire Club in Columbia City, which was hosting an election night party open to the community. Normally the Royal Esquire club is a members-only establishment, but the historic nature of this election had presumably inspired them to open their doors to the neighborhood. When I first pulled up in front of the club I observed a steady stream of elegant older black couples entering the building and I worried that I might have underdressed for the occasion in my denim and boots. I wished I’d at least worn my clean denim. Down the block at the Columbia City Theater I could hear a party was raging, and from the look of the crowd out front of the theater it was a racially integrated and casual affair.

Columbia City was until very recently a predominantly black neighborhood, but rapid gentrification has infused the whole area with a plague of Gore-Tex clad forty-to-fifty-year-olds, busily composting their coffee grounds, growing tomatoes, and listening to NPR. These well-meaning liberals had earned their stripes, in many cases even voting for Dukakis, but the prospect of watching gray-haired women in fleece-vests dancing all “funky” made me refocus my attention on gaining entrance to the Royal Esquire Club. I ran my fingers through my hair and tried to look presentable.

The Royal Esquire club was founded in 1948 and is the oldest black social club in the Pacific Northwest. The club itself is an enormous and completely windowless corner establishment on Rainier Avenue, a piece of property that must drive real estate developers to distraction, distinguished by a large awning decorated with the club’s logo, a top hat and cane. I pulled open the door and entered the first of three large rooms, painted a uniform mauve, where several large TVs were broadcasting the election returns. Obama was leading, and already the mood was jubilant, as though a weight was being gradually lifted off of everyone’s shoulders. I wandered through the building, smiling at everyone, strangely moved to congratulate each new person I met. High five into hand bump into hug, and then congratulations, and each new person held my hand and said some version of “We did it.” We did it. I wasn't the only white person in the building, but I was the only giant, blonde hippy in dirty jeans with a missing tooth. Still, I was greeted warmly. These were exciting times.

When Obama achieved his plurality the place went crazy, and out on the streets Columbia City resounded with shouts and honking horns. I ducked outside and stood on the corner, soaking up the revelry. A trio of teenaged “gangstas” moseyed by, their faces lit up with excitement, and each shook my hand, smiling. I went into the Columbia City Theater in time to hear McCain concede, and to see Jesse Jackson with tears streaming down his face. McCain himself seemed relieved, as though he knew Obama was the right choice. His shoulders relaxed, and he speech suggested that by his own defeat a part of his faith in America was restored. I bumped into my friend J, dressed in a suit and sporting an American flag pin. All around us black people were smiling, smiling openly and broadly, in a way we’d never quite seen before. It wasn’t giddiness, there was a deep calm underlying the joy. “We did it!” I kept hearing, “A black President.” J and I bounced back over to the Royal Esquire where he dirty-danced to the Pointer Sisters and I watched the old men play dominos. In a few days it would all start to feel natural, even inevitable, but in this moment we could still appreciate the newness, and every person surely reflected on a time in their own lives when the prospect of a black President would have been unfathomable. Order was returning to the world, but some of the weight was lifted.

America is often called a racist country, but I don’t think it’s true. America is the world’s LEAST racist country. No other place compares to it. There are more kinds of people mixed together here than anywhere else in the world, or in the history of mankind, and we’re doing our awkward best to live peacefully and make it work. I always knew there would be a black President, because I believe in America and have faith in our better natures, but I didn’t dream it would happen so soon. My dad died last year at age eighty-six after fighting for civil rights his whole life. I’m sad he didn’t live to see this day, but Obama’s victory is the result of my dad’s fight, and the fight of so many of his generation and before who stood up for justice against much more ferocious and forbidding opposition. Last night I saw on the faces of my black neighbors a new look, a recognition that their contribution to America had finally been recognized and acknowledged. A majority of Americans had chosen a black man to be President, and no conspiracy of vested interests or cabal of powerful men could invalidate it. We did it.

 
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