Brother From Another City

This account of Election Day in West Philly comes from Clifford Hill, an emeritus Columbia professor whom I met this summer at a friend's house in Chincoteague, Va. Clifford used to run the African languages program at the School of International Affairs. He wrote me this morning by e-mail:

Last Friday I drove down from Manhattan to Philadelphia to work for the Obama campaign. I had been assigned to work in one of the field offices on Lancaster Avenue in west Philadelphia. When the friends I was staying with learned about this assignment, they expressed concern about my personal safety. This area is marked by the usual ills that accompany urban poverty: drugs, crime, AIDS, homelessness. Many homes are left uninhabited: doors are bolted shut, windows boarded up, and porches cluttered with empty bottles and broken-down furniture.

At the same time, there are signs of urban renewal: certain blocks are filled with smartly built homes surrounded by immaculately groomed grass and shrubbery. But whether I was in a rebuilt neighborhood or a run-down one, I encountered the same fervent spirit: everybody was determined to get out to the polls and become part of history.

Early Monday morning I started out on a forlorn street when I came across a house that looked so dilapidated I was not sure whether anyone lived there. I decided to knock just in case. An elderly woman opened the door and I asked whether she would need any assistance in getting to the polls. She beckoned me to come in and there I met her son who was perhaps in his late fifties. He was sitting in a wheelchair and was clearly in pain. He explained that last week he had just been diagnosed with bone cancer.

When I told him I was sorry about this bad news, he managed a grim smile: "It's okay. We have to accept whatever comes. What's important now is that I get to vote tomorrow. I'm having trouble walking so I'm going to need some help." I asked when he wanted to be picked up and he said as early as possible. When I called the next morning, he had managed to get all dressed up so he would look good on "this historic occasion."

Later that same day I was canvassing in a block of new homes where there were many couples with young children. Unexpectedly, in one of the homes I came upon a couple who must have been well into their eighties: they were worried about how they were going to make it to the polls. When I asked them what time they wanted to be picked up the next day, the woman said: "Just get us there early in case the crowds get too big." As I was getting ready to leave, she added: "Now don't you forget us. We've waited too long to miss out on this."

On election day itself the neighborhood took on a carnival atmosphere. Since there was no school, children of all ages were out in the streets holding up Obama signs while they danced and sang: "Two, four, six, eight; Barack Obama's mighty great." Everywhere I went, children kept asking me for Obama buttons. When I ran out of them, I began to give them a small campaign poster with a magnificent black-and-white photo of Obama. In the lower right hand corner were the words: " I made history on _______ ," followed by a place where they could sign their name.

A woman who must have been in her sixties saw me carrying these posters and invited me into her home so that I could meet her 90-year-old mother. She hesitantly asked whether she could have the remaining posters so that her mother could give one to all her great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren. She said that her mother "was so worn out with waiting that she was down to her last nerve." Like so many others, this woman was the soul of hospitality: "Here, honey, sit down and rest yourself. We've got plenty of fried chicken to feed you."

The Obama campaign preferred that we canvas in pairs so I had the chance to team up with a number of different partners. Among them was Azeez from Ethiopia—as we encountered all the excited children in the streets, he described how Haile Selassie had once come to the small village where he was born; as a recent immigrant he was not eligible to vote, but he wanted to "help out in any way he could because the whole world has been waiting for someone like Obama."

Then there was Zooey who taught pre-school at a nearby charter school. As we went from door to door, I kept hearing "Hey, Ms. Zooey" shouted out; this young teacher, blond and energetic, kept scooping up children in her arms and cooing softly to them: "Obama, Obama, Obama."

And there was Doctor McCabe, a distinguished music teacher in Philadelphia public schools who had recently retired to work in a homeless program run by a nearby Baptist church where his wife was the pastor; he had grown up in the neighborhood and was hoping that "all the churches that had survived" would help it become once again the kind of place where "children can grow up safe and happy just the way I did."

One of the things I enjoyed most was having the chance to support all the young people who were running the Lancaster office: Diana had graduated in May and had decided not to start graduate school until "Barack was president."

Rachel was taking off a semester from law school at the University of Pennsylvania; she wore a "Yes we can" tattoo on both cheeks and she gave me her last tattoo to wear on my left cheek.

Lee had just come back from working on abortion issues as a Watson scholar in countries around the world. One of these countries was Niger and she was startled to discover that I had studied Hausa oral tradition there. She asked me to say something in Hausa so I recited a proverb that somehow expressed what I was feeling as we all—young and old, black and white—worked together for the Obama campaign: Ba domin tsawo a kan ga wata ba. 'It's not because of one's height that one is able to see the moon.'

Later that night as I listened to Barack call out for all Americans to work together, I had the sense that his distinctive leadership style reflects his years of working as a community organizer in poor neighborhoods. No one should be placed above others, since all people, whether short or tall, look at the same moon.