On rare and wonderful occasions, you may have a chance encounter with someone who changes your entire perspective. I had an experience like that when I was volunteering for the Iowa caucus on behalf of Barack Obama in 2008. I left California right after Christmas and helped out with then-Senator Obama’s campaign in Des Moines. No job was too small for any of us, and we spent hours in freezing temperatures knocking on doors.
The people in Iowa were so welcoming. We showed up to their homes unannounced, and they would stop whatever they were doing and say, “Come in, sit down! Would you like a cup of coffee?” The night before the caucuses, I was assigned to senior-living apartments that primarily housed elderly black residents. As I was knocking on doors, often the person who answered would say, “Oh, baby, come on in. You look a little skinny, you want something to eat? Do you have somewhere to stay?”
I came to an apartment where the person who answered left the chain on the door. She was a petite black woman and possessed the most elegance you’ve ever seen. Her hair was done. Her makeup was perfect. Her outfit was well thought out – she was the epitome of put-together. But she wasn’t expecting anybody. I think that’s just how she dressed every day.
Through the chain on the door, she said, “Can I help you?” I responded, “I’m here because I’m working on behalf of Barack Obama, and I wanted to talk to you about the caucuses happening tomorrow. Are you planning to attend the caucus?”
She looked at me without any expression on her face, and said to me, “They not gonna let him win.”
My heart sank. I dropped my bags in the hallway, and I decided that I would not leave that apartment until she and I had a longer discussion. When I looked at her, I saw a woman well into her 80s, and I thought about every life experience she must have had when it was legal in this country to discriminate against black people. That was when Jim Crow existed, when there was brutal violence, and when explicit acts of prejudice were an everyday norm. And yet, in spite of this, she was the most dignified woman you ever could have seen.
It takes strength to maintain your dignity when you’ve been through so much. Her response suggested to me that, because she had seen and experienced significant disappointments in her life, she didn’t want to have hope about electing the first black President, only to suffer disappointment when he didn’t win.
We kept talking, and I told this elderly black woman about the Obama campaign headquarters in Des Moines, and how generations of diverse people had come together around our candidate. I said, “What’s going on here is happening all over the country. Strong coalitions are being built, and I know we can do it.” The woman made no promises. She opened the door a little wider as she listened, but she never took that chain off.
The next evening, I was at a caucus, where my job at one point was to bring pizzas to everyone who was standing in line in the cold. When I went back inside, guess who was sitting in the corner all by herself, wearing a fox stole over her winter coat?