January 22, 2021
Excerpt - From Inspiration to Activism, A Personal Journey through Obama’s Presidential Campaign- Winner of the Book of the Year Award for Indie Non-Fiction
By Mary Lang Sollinger
A few heard my accent and wanted to know where I was from. I am not sure which words triggered their comment. They just knew that I didn’t sound like someone from Indiana. When I said Wisconsin, they asked who paid for my gas for the car or who was paying me to knock on doors. They could hardly believe that I was doing this on my own. No one was paying me any money or offering me any favors. Many times, I ended by saying, "There are a lot of people like me who are volunteering for him throughout the country.” I wanted to give them hope. I was glad to be doing this work. It felt fulfilling, like I was making a difference for the people with whom I talked. We had some open and straightforward conversations, which were rewarding. It felt like hope was real. As a friend in Madison told me, “Mary, you had an awakening.” I could only hope the people whose doors I had knocked on, did too.
One person I met that day will stay with me forever. Before she opened the door, I heard her rubber-soled slippers scraping a plastic floor runner on the other side of the door. The door barely opened. I saw one yellow eye, just a part of a face of leather and grey hair. I held up the Obama brochure, and she opened the door two more inches. Short and bent over, the woman had deep wrinkles from the sun on her face. Her fingers were thick from years of hard labor. Her hands reminded me of old farmers’ hands in my hometown, but these hands were more gnarled. She was shaking her head no. I spoke a little louder. Maybe she didn’t hear me the first time. “There are many thousands of other people like me who working for Barack Obama. We want him to be president. We are working hard for him.” Her head stopped shaking “no”. She looked me straight in the eye. With the saddest eyes I had ever seen, she said clearly, “If he gets to Washington, they will tear him apart, limb by limb. I don’t want that to happen to him.”
A shiver come over me. I pictured what she might have seen, maybe as a child or an adult. I had heard stories from blacks about why they had moved their families up North. It was domestic terrorism that we white folks could not even imagine. No way could we understand this part of our country’s history. It will be a painful journey for this country to truly come to terms with its bloody history of racism and demonizing a people. This will be a journey well worth taking so that we can move on and keep our country united.
I tried to reassure her that too many cared about Barack Obama. If he won, he would have a majority of the country behind him, and things would be okay. Looking down at the colorful brochure, she took it from my hand and nodded goodbye. I walked slowly to the next door, trying to take in her words. She couldn’t be right, but she was so certain. I didn’t know her past. She could be the granddaughter of a slave or a sharecropper. I didn’t know what this woman had witnessed or endured. After four hours of knocking on doors and talking to people, I experienced a humility that I had never felt before, as well as an entitlement that I’d taken for granted.
When I returned to the community center, the gracious volunteer Miss Gloria was still there. I joined a table of black women who had also been knocking on doors. We shared stories of canvassing. We all were working for the same candidate, the same cause. We had a frank conversation about the possibility of Barack Obama actually winning. Was our country ready for a black president? It felt like I was with kindred spirits.
One woman, Miss Betty, spoke about committee meetings with both blacks and whites at the table. She said that when she would be at a school meeting or at a parent conference meeting and she would complain about something hurting Black kids or her child, or if she focused on a perceived black issue, the White people’s eyes would glaze over. It was as if they were saying “Here it comes again, more complaining. Why can’t you people just be satisfied? Are things really that bad?” I shared that I served on a fair amount of city and community meetings and witnessed the same phenomenon. Miss Betty said the messenger made a difference. In a group or during a committee, if a white person brought up something about a black issue or concern the other whites in attendance accepted it much more readily. They would ask questions and engage in a discussion on the topic. A solution was more likely to happen.
I spoke about the older woman who had made such an impression on me who won’t vote for Obama. They were saddened but not surprised. She said the older generation had been through a lot. They knew stories of their ancestors who were educated and were elected to local and congressional offices before the Jim Crow and the Reconstruction Era. All that would come to a halt when the segregation laws of Jim Crow passed at the Federal level. After this federal law was enacted, the black people mainly in the South lost nearly all their civil rights. Harsh realities and changes followed. Social activities in the southern urban states with the good jobs and opportunities were abruptly shut off because of the fear of the white and black adults and children mingling.
She continued with her own stories of being excluded at work and other social activities—like shopping in a store and being followed by a security officer who assumed she would steal something. Miss Gloria spoke of her work in an office and how a black person rarely gets a second chance. When a white person makes a mistake, there’s always an excuse: they were having a bad day, the machine broke, the manager gave the wrong instructions. When the same thing or something similar happened to a black worker, comments were muttered like “I told you so,” with rolling eyes, or “What do you expect from those people?” This was painful to hear, but I knew she was speaking the truth.
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