Jessica, a mother of seven, forfeited her lunch yesterday to stay by a television as noon marked the start of President Obama’s first term. While Yo-yo Ma’s rising cello melody evoked the words to “Simple Gifts” Jessica covered her wet face with two wiry hands. “Those were tears of joy,” the 49 year-old said.
Until the lunch buzzer sounded at The Drop Inn Center, a shelter working “to empower people to move from homelessness to housing” in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, the windowless TV lounge for female residents rang out with responses to the inauguration. About eight women–most of them African American mothers and grandmothers–followed the ceremony with curiosity, wonder, shouts of agreement, and an attentiveness that bespoke ownership. Each of their votes helped Obama win Ohio.
Roberta, 37, along with Jessica, not only voted for Obama but also helped fellow shelter residents find rides to polls on Election Day. Their voices rose while describing the empowerment they carried away from the election. Obama had moved Roberta to vote for the first time in many years, and she understood his victory in the same way he often represents it: “It’s not about him, it’s about what we’re going to do.” What will that be?
“Help for the people that need help, and medical care,” Roberta said.
Roberta saw a link between social involvement and personal transformation, in the women around her. Helping elect Obama, she said, had made some of them feel better, look better, and think more clearly. She and Jessica underlined the importance of this shift for shelter residents. After falling behind in her rent payments and exhausting the help of friends, Jessica said her self-image quailed at the prospect of entering a shelter.
“We have to swallow pride, and put to the side, ‘Oh, I’m better than this.'”
But, said Roberta, “If they can get this president elected to office, they can do a lot of other things.”
At a moment full of possibility and need, Roberta worried that the media’s preoccupation with President Obama’s blackness could distract the country and its leader from important work.
“I mean, he’s for the people. He’s not just for the black people. That’s gonna constrict him while he’s in office, if they keep playing the race card.”
Cincinnatians, Roberta said, cannot afford to let their momentum slow or their focus stray from fulfilling basic needs.
“We need to catch up and stop playing in the mustard. . . We need to find the things that we NEED—not that we want, because people want a whole bunch of things.”
When Obama spoke of homes lost and jobs shed, his words struck an obvious chord for these women, many of whom struggled to find jobs because of criminal records or disability status. But the theme in his speech that resonated most, was that of personal responsibility and starting anew. His exhortation to “pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America” inspired fervent applause, and cries of “Democrats back in da HOUSE!!”
The televised lead-up to the inauguration allowed the women to compare notes on the history and leadership that preceded it. CNN’s first shot of the fortified inaugural balcony brought Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination to mind for many. “I was six,” recalled Jessica.
When Jimmy Carter glided onto the screen, shouts of “Peanut Man!” rose up, and Hillary Clinton’s arrival shook the room with cheers, including “SEE YA, Condoleezza!!” Rahm Emmanuel and Bill Clinton received shout-outs and mm-hmms for looking “sharp”, and Aretha Franklin was admired for her young companion and audacious hat.
When George Bush Sr. hobbled into view with his wife, the group hushed for a moment before speculating on why he was not in a wheelchair.
“That Barbara—she was a nice lady,” said a bespectacled Democrat in her 60’s.
Cheney’s wheeling-in, however, provoked an unsympathetic roar. Jessica and another woman jumped up, bent over, and pointed their backsides at the screen. KISS IT was the clear message. The outgoing president fared no better.
The appearance of the Obama family unleashed tears, hugs, and dancing. Only when the ceremony announcer’s voice asked participants to take their seats, did four twirling celebrants sink obediently into plastic chairs.
Later, as the post-event coverage dribbled into punditry and an unpredictable year loomed, Jessica’s rising voice and hope cut through the din.
“I can guarantee you, this time next year I am gonna be helping a whole bunch of women! I am gonna come back and help somebody. Mark my word.”
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The names of people interviewed and represented for this story have been changed to protect their privacy. Portraits are by the author.