Emory Report
November 17, 2008
Volume 61, Number 12



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November 17
, 2008
Exultation in election-night Chicago

LaDonna Cherry is associate director of Emory Creative Group.

Some of my close friends joke that I live in my head too much. This has especially been true during the past election cycle. Beginning with the Georgia presidential primary in February, I have tracked the daily polls, listened to pundits from both sides, and watched each debate cursing and cheering like a rabid sports fan.
True to the advice from the ladies at the hair salon, there was a sense of calm after I voted early on Oct. 10. But that was short-lived. I soon returned to embarrassing my children by yelling back at the NPR commentators during carpool each morning.

The most immutable sense of calm came once we made the decision to be in Chicago’s Grant Park on election night. At the urging of our 9-year old, there had been debate in our house over whether or not to go. When it was announced on Oct. 27 that tickets would be required, the discussion was tabled, but our daughter kept up the pressure. But when her godmother called on the morning of Nov. 3 to say that Mayor Richard Daley had announced no one would be turned away from the park, the possibility became a bit more real.

My husband snagged a hotel room just off Michigan Avenue around noon. The three kids were instructed to pack overnight bags, but the two teenagers quietly hedged bets we would stay at home and made plans to hit the mall with their friends on Election Day. In all honesty, even I waited until that evening before informing my church that I would not be on call to ferry voters to and from the polls as I had volunteered to do.

Everyone around us laughed at the absurdity of the idea, everyone except a few colleagues and my 9-year old, Autumn.

My colleague Mary Loftus, prone to spontaneous road trips, spoke about the narrative this would provide for our family to share in the future regardless of the outcome of the election. Another colleague, Margie Roe, encouraged me to leave my head for a ‘change.’ As my husband spoke to the historical implications of our trek, my baby daughter counted her allowance money for souvenirs.

There was little sleep the night before. My husband and I had flaked on grand ideas many times in our 20-plus years together, but there were also times when we made good, like at the march protesting racial violence in Forsyth County led by the late Hosea Williams.

The drive took exactly 12 hours, including pit stops, and as we pulled into the city the mood was palpable. Chicago’s finest were a very strong presence and had already begun redirecting traffic away from feeder streets to Grant Park. Upon hearing the distance we’d traveled in one day, the hotel manager upgraded our room to a suite at no charge. Once settled in, we hit Michigan Avenue to catch the vibe and stretch our legs.

At the restaurant, our waiter refreshed the Electoral College count along with our water glasses. As clumps of people paraded past the window, heading toward the park a few blocks away, we could hardly eat and pay fast enough.

My husband Quincy felt the atmosphere reminded him of that scene in “War of the Worlds,” where everyone was trying to get to safety in Boston. I thought it was like the Inman Park festival on steroids. We both agreed it was like Dr. King’s March on Washington.

We made our way into Grant Park just as the election was called for Barack Obama. At that moment I knew I was not the only one who had lived in her head, alone in my steady diet of politics for the last nine months. Two hundred and fifty thousand souls, in that city alone, felt relief as inaudible anticipation was replaced with exultant cheers, tears and hugs from total strangers. People in buildings high above the street knocked on their windows or shouted from balconies. Drivers honked their horns, some even getting out to dance around in the street.

We had snagged a spot on a small incline near one of the JumboTrons that were scattered around the park. The night sky was luminous as all of the well-known skyscrapers created some sort of statement in light within their windows: red, white and blue; office windows forming the American flag or spelling “USA.” Room was made so the little ones could get a better view. Cell phones and cameras flashed, people spoke in foreign languages, the occasional roar would swell up from behind like “the wave” at a ball game — “Yes we did!” or “Obama!”

Following Obama’s victory speech, we re-joined the exhilarated crowd as we filled Michigan Avenue, marching toward our hotels, toward the train station — and toward the future.