3 Nov 2016

Barack Obama, the crying girls and the presidency to come

On election day in America, the question is always the same – where shall we be as the winner is declared? If Hilary wins, where? If Trump, where? Back in 2008 amid the unbelievable possibility that America was about to vote in a black President, the answer was obvious – let’s be at America’s top, historically black Howard University in the north of Washington DC.

So that’s where we were as the count reached fever pitch. Barack Obama was edging towards the historic moment. Suddenly the vast dining hall in which we were located erupted, like a mushroom cloud. Maybe as many as 2,000 African American souls erupted with joy – arms, legs, bobbing, threw themselves into the air, screaming, crying, in that instant seemingly some how liberated from history as never before.

Down on the steps in front of me a girl of perhaps eighteen was cascading with tears – ‘We did it…America…I never thought it would happen, we are free’. Another, close by, bursting with joy ‘I never thought I’d ever live to see this day’.

Then they were lost in the throng.

All these years on from 2008 I kept wondering what happened to those girls and their ecstatic joy – their hopes, and dreams. This year Flora Bagenal, then a fresh faced intern in our Washington office, determined to find them. We did not even know their names. She meticulously scoured the Howard University year books – eventually finding first one person who recognized one, and then another.

Sandy Booker, for she was the ‘crying girl’, now 26, turned out to be at MIT completing a postgraduate MBA. Kelauni Cook, now 27, lived in Pittsburgh and works as a software engineer. We caught up with Kelauni at her parents’ home in a middle class suburb of Chicago, and Sandy in New Orleans, where she grew up.

Sandy’s single Mum had died since 2008. She herself had never been back to her district, her home having been washed away. Born in poverty, her academic achievement was monumental. And Obama today? She still loved him, still rejoiced in his ascent to the White House, but felt her hopes for change had never been fulfilled. She cried as she watched the video of that election night. Cried as she talked of the police stopping her in her car for no stated reason, and how her honours degree, her MBA, and her young life’s achievement meant nothing to the force. It was the colour of her skin that defined her relationship with them.

Kelauni, when we met her, is still full of joy from that night, still loving Obama and his breakthrough. Realistic about the journey to come, but still enthused by the rampart that has been crossed. ‘No going back,’ she cried as she danced across Chicago’s Grant Park where Obama had made his great acceptance speech in 2008 – ‘Obama! Obama! Obama!’ she cried as she ran off after our interview into the sunset.

One night to remember. An erstwhile candidate, like no other on the campaign stage today. Two women with contrasting feelings eight years on. But both equally sceptical of the next Presidency to come.


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