Tonight, for the first time ever, an African American was nominated as a major party’s presidential candidate in the United States of America, a country founded on the fault lines of freedom and slavery.
The energy was amazing in Denver’s Mile High Stadium as I packed in with my dad, my brother, and some 80,000 others for Barack Obama’s acceptance speech on the final night of the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
I guess the DNC is becoming something of a family tradition.
In 2000 I spent four days at the DNC in Los Angeles, demonstrating outside the convention; marching in the streets and protesting the corporate, militarist complicity of the Democratic Party. On the last night, I went inside the convention with my dad and listened to Vice President Gore’s acceptance speech. Within minutes I had gone from the streets to the suites–from protesting behind a fence, to eating shrimp in a skybox with Gore’s Chief of Staff, and the family of the keynote speaker, Harold Ford, Jr.
Candidate Gore was at the peak of his populism and gave a passionate speech in which he vowed that, as president, he would work for the people, not the powerful.
The next morning I drove from L.A. to the Bay Area, winding my way up the California coast on Hwy. 1 along the blue-green Pacific. (This was the day that I moved to Oakland: a sunny Friday in mid-August of 2000. Three months before Florida and the stealing of the election. A year before September 11.)
Four years later in 2004, my dad, my brother, and I were together at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. It had been a tough and traumatic presidential term. Worse than anything I could have imagined from the vantage of Los Angeles four years before. Using 9/11 as pretext, the Bush administration had invaded Iraq, lying and deceiving the country into war, abusing the courage and lives of our soldiers and mercilessly killing Iraqi families. In this manner, Karl Rove, Bush, Cheney, et al, had spent the first term engineering the reelection of a "Wartime President." One that a frightened electorate would rally around. One impervious to basic questioning from subservient corporate media.
Now here we are, after two terms of the George W. Bush Administration, including Cheney, Addington, and the whole slate of shadowy advocates for torture, bombing, secrecy and spying on any and all Americans. We have just lived through the worst presidency in American history. Who will count the missing billions of dollars? Who will count the stolen lives? The wasted time and squandered opportunities? The vanished intangibles–like hope, trust, good will, self-respect, standing in the world?
The trauma and turmoil of these last 8 years infused extra urgency into the 2008 presidential race. After this long night of war, greed, and mendacity, the candidacy of Obama has felt to many like a long-wished-for daybreak, with the peak of new promise heightened by the depths of despair.
For myself, I was glad to see the Democrats nominate an inspiring, unifying, energizing candidate who had been against this crazy war from the very beginning. Senator Obama is not perfectly progressive in all of his policies, and electoral politics is only one part of change, and, yes, the entire system is corrupt. But for years I have wanted to see the Dems return to a "Bobby Kennedy ’68" kind of model, with an eloquent, visionary, inclusive campaign that is proudly progressive.
By far the most compelling part of Obama’s campaign is the moment it marks in the history of white supremacy and systemic racism in the U.S.. Of course, a Black president won’t magically end racism, but still, this is undeniably dramatic on multiple levels. The election of a African American as president would mark a significant milepost on the spiritual trajectory in American history that has as its midpoint the Emancipation Proclamation, (which W. E. B. Du Bois called "easily the most dramatic episode in American history").
Barack Obama was about to become the first Black major party presidential nominee ever; The first African American with a serious chance to win the White House.
This was history I wanted to see.
I flew into Colorado on Monday afternoon, and drove into downtown Denver. That evening I performed poetry at the Big Tent, as part of of a line-up that included 2 progressive comedians and the actress Daryl Hannah. Before the show, I stood in a room filled with hundreds of progressive bloggers watching a big t.v. where Michelle Obama was speaking to the convention about her husband and his campaign. Almost immediately I felt myself tearing up; something about Ms. Obama–her poise, grandeur and grace; something about really seeing her as the next First Lady; something about the moment–as historic as any election in my lifetime; something about the simple power of love between a wife and husband. Joining their mom onstage after the speech, the adorable Obama girls made me tear up again. Then Barack appeared via satellite and said, "How about Michelle Obama? Now you know why I asked her out so many times even though she said no. You want a persistent president."
The next morning I moderated a panel with Paul Ray, Jim Garrison, and Pat Mitchell, called "The New Political Compass: How the Climate Crisis is Changing Politics." I opened the panel by reading my poem "hieroglyphic stairway," which was written with the climate crisis and the mass extinction crisis in mind. Stay tuned for the results of Paul Ray’s newest surveys–taking the "cultural creatives" idea to the next level and demonstrating conclusively that Americans are much more progressive than we’re told, are ready to solve the climate crisis, and have a deep reverence for the living earth.
Later in the day I said hi to Majora Carter at the Big Tent, having greeted her colleague Van Jones there the day before. Together, Van and Majora are Executive Directors of Green For All. (If you don’t know, ask somebody.) On the sidewalk I ran into another inspiring and committed friend, David Solnit, who was in the streets with IVAW–Iraq Veterans Against the War–a group that I would say has earned the right to tell the gung-ho, pro-war, blowhards in the media to shut the hell up.
That afternoon my dad, Walter, arrived and it was great to hang out with my pops. We went into the convention that night and heard Hillary Clinton’s speech. On the 16th Street walking mall we ran into Medea Benjamin who was also demonstrating to stop the war–literally building a "Peace Platform" in the streets with her Code Pink crew.
On Wednesday my brother, Hampton, flew in, so now all the Dellinger boys were kickin’ it in Denver. First, the ritual daily scramble for credentials to get inside the convention that night….Inside the place where credentials are picked up when suddenly the room broke into applause. I turned around to see President Jimmy Carter shuffling by, waving in acknowledgement, and yes, smiling.
Then my dad, Hamp and I made our way toward the Pepsi Center, stopping at a book party for John Podesta’s brother in the downstairs bar of an Italian restaurant with free wine and killer appetizers. In the midst of the crowded function, my dad was watching the convention on a silent t.v. above the bar. Inside the hall, Hillary Clinton strode to the microphone and officially placed Barack Obama’s name into nomination as the Democratic candidate for president. Caught by the emotion of the moment, my dad went outside and called John Hope Franklin, the legendary historian, and author of, From Slavery to Freedom (1947), one of the definitive texts of African American history.
My dad asked Dr. Franklin, "Did you ever think that you would see this moment in your lifetime?"
"Well, Walter, I never thought I would live to be 94 years old," Dr. Franklin said with a laugh, "But even if I had, I never would have thought that I would see this moment in my lifetime."
Earlier in the spring during the North Carolina primary, John Hope Franklin had said that Obama’s candidacy was reversing a narrative in American life that goes back 350 years.
The sun was strong as my brother, dad and I filed through the security check point at Mile High Stadium on Thursday afternoon. The scene was amazing, unlike anything I’d seen: kind of like Woodstock meets DNC meets "I Have a Dream." It was of course fitting that Obama’s historic acceptance speech should fall on August 28th, exactly 45 years after Dr. King’s momentous address. I chuckled when I walked by two guys wearing t-shirts and truckers’ hats that said, "Rednecks for Obama." At the same time, I was deeply moved, as I would be throughout the evening.
But in spite of all the potential pitfalls, I think Obama had to go for it and give the stadium a try for one simple reason:
Because he could.
No other politician in my lifetime could have pulled it off, and that is something that had to be shown to be proved. It gave body to the spirit of the campaign, allowing that spirit to be felt all the more. In political terms it was priceless. You can’t buy what Obama can create; a sense of unity and shared purpose; that indefinable, unmistakable feeling called inspiration.
After a chorus of speakers like Al Gore and Dr. King’s son and daughter, and musicians like Sheryl Crow and Stevie Wonder, darkness descended to help set the stage for the central event.
I felt that Obama’s speech was just about the best political speech I’d ever seen. His timing was stellar, his language clear and strong, his vision lofty, and his outrage healthy and appropriate, without seeming angry or defensive. My favorite parts were when he took it straight to John McCain, as when Obama said firmly in the face of smears against his patriotism: "I have news for you, John McCain. We all put country first." I loved when Obama declared something like, "If John McCain wants to have a debate over who has the judgement and the temperament to be commander-in-chief, then that’s a debate I’m willing to have." I felt like I’ve been waiting all my goddamn life to see a major Democratic or progressive candidate stand up to Repulican lies, spin and slander.