The ASBO Chronicles | When there are no words, vote.
In the first installment of REVOLT’s newest column, and with less than 100 days until the midterm elections, author Blake Scotland recalls how President Obama’s Farewell Address inspired a career change.
‘The ASBO Chronicles’ ask what we have to offer beyond the limits of our own experience. What does it mean to live well? These are moments in time – chronicles of a self-proclaimed Antisocial Behavior (dis)Order.
President Obama’s Farewell Address changed the course of my professional life without the courtesy of forewarning, but unexpectedly, and abruptly.
I had accepted an invitation to the lovely and talented artist Z’s house for a ‘viewing party’ by way of my brother’s better-half, Ali, a Chelsea art gallery director and close friend of mine, as well. I had already met most of the other young ladies attending, 10 or so of us total, and we hung out in a bubble of nostalgia enjoying the wine and conversation before the Address began. Z called in a Thai order from her luxurious local takeout spot to her equally luxurious East Village apartment. It arrived in a hurry and we hunkered down around the dining table, just as Obama appeared on the flat screen across from us.
Conversation fell to a murmur and there were silent gestures to pass the bok choy, as a palpable melancholy fell across the room.
“Whether we’ve seen eye-to-eye or rarely agreed at all, my conversations with you, the American people, are what have kept me honest, kept me inspired and kept me going. Every day, I learned from you. You made me a better President, and you made me a better man.”
We chewed and listened, washing the food down with red wine in generous gulps. I reached to refill my glass.
“It’s the insistence that these rights, while self-evident, have never been self-executing; that We, the People, through the instrument of our democracy, can form a more perfect union.”
“He’s in his bag tonight,” Ashley volunteered aloud, to no one in particular. I picked up my phone to text Shelley. “Are you watching this?” I asked him. “Are you kidding?” he replied.
“Understand, democracy does not require uniformity. Our founders quarreled and compromised, and expected us to do the same. But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity—the idea that for all our outward differences, we are all in this together; that we rise or fall as one.”
My thoughts drifted back to eight years prior. I lived in London when Obama was elected for his first term; stayed up all night sitting on the living room floor to watch the votes come in. I had tried to imagine my country electing a President of color. I’d squeezed my eyes shut to visualize old classmates, neighbors, teammates, the parents of my friends leaving their homes and heading to their nearest polling center. I tried to picture them pressing that button. It was audacious to hope; impossible to see. When I walked into work later that same morning, eyes bloodshot and smiling, every one of my colleagues turned to look at me, smiling back and breaking into spontaneous applause.
Eight years later, we sat quietly and listened through to the very end of the speech, each turning our chairs and bodies more fully towards the television as we finished eating one by one.
I snapped a photo of the TV screen, zooming in on our President’s face, his features slightly blurry and obscure in the picture of a picture.
Ali tapped me gently on my knee. “Want to get some air?” she asked me. “Yeah, I’d love a cig.”
We both quietly pulled on jackets and hats and made our way out of the glass double doors leading onto the back patio.
It had been snowing the last couple days and the ground was completely covered and crunchy under our boots. White flakes were falling again. We pulled the doors tightly shut behind us and huddled our heads in close together, passing the lit Capri back and forth between us. I started to cry.
Ali put her arm around my shoulders and pulled me in closer against her side. “It just sucks so baaad,” I moaned. I had never felt less articulate.
“I know!” she responded knowingly. “It’s like, what can we actually do?!” There really wasn’t much else to say.
We finished the cigarette and returned inside to the voices and laughter of our friends. By then, everyone had vacated the dining table and settled in comfortably around the living room in front of a roaring fire. Z added a couple more logs, and the glow leapt along the opposite wall and the ceiling.
“Can we organize towards eliminating the electoral college?” someone suggested. “Maybe this Russia thing will stick,” I volunteered.
We looked into each others eyes, and then into our own laps, unsure and quiet again.
The question we grappled with that night, into the days, weeks and months that followed, was not the issue of our pain or outrage, but how to channel those into our civic responsibility—or civil unrest. His words begged the question of how we each embody the characteristics of a change agent—ferocity, empathy, adaptability—in our everyday lives and in our interactions with others. How, also, can we each commit to living our most authentic, fulfilling life, finding a reason every day to smile in a country, a world, where the joy and freedom of a person of color is, in itself, an act of revolution?
And, like that, I did not want to do talent PR anymore. This past Monday marked 100 days to the upcoming midterm elections (November 6). All 435 seats in the House and 35 of the 100 seats in the Senate will be contested. Monday also commemorated just over one week since the murder of Nia Wilson, an 18-year-young black woman stabbed to death in Oakland by a 27-year-old white man arguably emboldened by a President and administration which seem to have little regard for the bodies and lives of citizens of color.
I’m committed over the coming months to encouraging young people to participate in the process in any way that we can. Or, as Jerry Saltz, art critic for New York Magazine so eloquently put it, “Listen motherfuckers: 100 Days to Midterms….Vote or get out.”