I watched the US Democratic presidential nomination race with great interest.
Normally I’m blasé about US politics. Like everyone I feel inundated with US news and politics and I sometimes feel as though I know more about that than I do about our domestic situation.
But the presidential primaries this year got my attention. For one, the former first lady, Hilary Clinton, was in the race, and I desperately wanted to see a woman assume a significant mantle of power.
Women are a lot like Indians, really. They know how it feels to be marginalized, prejudged, undervalued, over scrutinized and under appreciated. So I wanted her to do well, maybe find a little vicarious victory in her achievements.
But the real reason I was so interested, was Barack Obama. Now that he’s secured the Democratic nomination and will square off against Republican John McCain in a November showdown, I couldn’t be happier or more inspired.
Obama, of course, is black. If anyone understands the implications of race in trying to secure a just place in society, it’s a black person and Obama’s presence in the race for the White House held a lot for me. I wanted him to win. I wanted to know that there is hope for those of us who lead marginalized lives.
It’s not just Native people who bear that wish. It’s women, the racially mixed, the handicapped, homeless, mentally challenged, gay, lesbian, under-educated, unemployed, elderly, immigrant and youth who want to see an underdog rise up and not only challenge the status quo but give it a good solid licking and send it packing.
Obama’s quest was the continuing theme of hope that was first sown in the United States by Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln wanted emancipation for black people. He wanted freedom and equality to resonate as more than just poetic phrases in their Constitution.
His vision of the country was justice for everyone and it took a war that nearly rent the fabric of their country to get it done.
That theme was continued later in the work of the Reverend Martin Luther King. King’s crusade was for the every day rights of all people. It was expressed in a clarion call to black consciousness but its message was for all of us.
He was a pacifist who engaged the wrongness of society with a message other societal salvation could come from the people themselves if they would hear it. They did and things changed.
I was a boy in the 1960s. I remember the tumult of the Civil Rights Movement. I recall the fear my adopted white parents held for H. Rap Brown, the Weathermen and Stokely Carmichael, and the other ‘bad Negroes.’
I recall how that fear was transferred to every black face they encountered — and I remember looking at my own brown skin and wondering how it applied to me.
Later, I became more marginalized. I became a high school drop out, a welfare case, an unemployed, homeless, alcoholic, and eventually a card-carrying First Nations activist. Along the way I met people from every stripe who showed me that it isn’t just the skin that polarizes you — it’s attitude and it’s everywhere. The struggle upward with labels applied to you is hard and tiring.
So Barack Obama’s quest was my quest too. It was a crusade for justice, for representation, for recognition, not just for black people, but for those of us who have ever had to fight to be seen and heard, recognized and valued.
For me, watching it all unfold, it was hope expressed in speeches, debates and the power of one man to carry forward despite history and old hurts and old wounds.
That means something to me. It means something important.
Because I want to carry on despite things too. The march to becoming the fullest expression of who I was created to be, has to include the slings and arrows of fortune, however outrageous, unjust and hurtful they might be. But it doesn’t have to depend on them or become the vision itself.
The image of Obama, arms raised in victory, showed me and marginalized people everywhere that triumph is not only possible — its time has come.
Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He recently won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels.