CHARLOTTE — Tears welled in Margaret Lorraine Dancy’s eyes when she saw the pictures of Air Force One land here in her hometown this week. The country’s first African American president stepped off the plane, and suddenly all Dancy could think about was 1960, when some boys she knew from her 11th-grade homeroom class in nearby Greensboro helped spark a movement by sitting down for lunch at a local Woolworth’s store and refusing to heed the whites-only rules.
Dancy now has a habit of clipping newspaper articles about President Obama and his family, and storing them in a plastic bin for later study by her 5-year-old grandson, who she hopes will grow up to see this president as a role model who scaled the highest wall.
She’s volunteering for Obama’s reelection campaign, as are many of her friends, but Dancy grew frustrated at times this week with some of the news coverage of the Democratic National Convention — little things, she said, like the wording of the party platform. The media’s missing the real story, she thought.
“This is something deep in our community,” she said Thursday as she prepared to leave a rally at the Mount Carmel Baptist Church, a few miles from the arena where Obama would speak hours later. “It’s about people who were on the outside in the 1960s; we’re on the inside now.”
Across Charlotte this week, wherever blacks congregated, there was an unmistakable vibe. From the street vendors selling “I’ve Got Your Back” T-shirts emblazoned with Obama’s silhouette to the misty-eyed delegates who choked up at the mere mention of the first couple, African Americans were expressing a special sense of urgency about this election.
The 2008 election and Obama’s inauguration brought jubilation, almost disbelief, for blacks who never thought they would see one of their own reach that pinnacle of power. Now, that feeling of joy for many blacks has turned to determination, and a little bit of fear, as they begin to see victory in November as a necessary affirmation of what happened in 2008.
“Four years ago there was a changing of the guard, and this year there’s a guarding of the change we started,” said Wendell Pierce, the actor and businessman who played Detective Bunk Moreland in HBO’s “The Wire” and attended the convention.
Pierce said conservative critics have treated and judged this black president “by a different set of standards” than his white predecessors, proving the adage Pierce said he learned from his parents: blacks always have to be 10 times better than others “because you’re perceived to be lesser than.”
“If President Obama had cured cancer, they’d have found a problem,” he said.
Many African Americans attending the festivities said that Obama needs the protection of his people, even if some have disagreed with his policies at times or felt let down by his performance in office.
The weight of history was never far from people’s minds. In conversations, they discussed what some viewed as iconic images of the black presidency: the Oval Office photo in which a 5-year-old black boy touched the president’s hair to see if it felt the same as his; the news conference in which Obama said that “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” referring to the black teenager shot and killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida; the Barack-Michelle smooch on the Verizon Center “KissCam” during a U.S. men’s basketball team exhibition game.
It was the kiss, in particular, that has stayed with Ashley Lee, a 28-year-old delegate from Georgia. She said she would be “honestly devastated” if Obama were to lose in November — and not just because she agrees with him on the issues. She also sees the Obamas as a personal inspiration, the modern embodiment of the Huxtables, the fictional family from the 1980s sitcom “The Cosby Show” that Lee and her friends watched growing up.
“Now we have a real-life couple,” Lee said. “I’m single and looking for a mate. Just seeing somebody who looks like me being that affectionate with his wife, being able to publicly show that affection, was incredible.”
As she spoke, Lee stood on the concourse level of the Time Warner Cable Arena, other delegates whizzing by, many of them people of color. The Democratic Party reported that 40 percent of convention delegates were minorities.
If Obama loses, Atlanta radio talk show host Mo Ivory worries that the country may not be ready to put another African American in the White House anytime soon.
His presidency has been euphoric in many ways for black Americans, but it has created some tensions. Some African American leaders have complained that he didn’t do enough to help black communities struggling under the recession, while Obama and his defenders have said he cannot be a president just for blacks.
“Sometimes I think America wasn’t ready to embrace what a black president would mean,” Ivory said. “Even African Americans have expectations that were unrealistic. And America became very divided over him, and this figure that he is, whether or not he’s a black president or a president for everybody.”
Yet Ivory feels protective. “There is a fever pitch around the slogan, ‘We’ve got your back,’ ” she said. “We say that in the African American community. And we’re going to be there for him, the same as we were in 2008.”
That sentiment was deeply felt, and repeatedly expressed, during a meeting Thursday morning at the Mount Carmel Baptist Church. Pastors from the Carolinas drove in to meet with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and one by one, the event turned into an impromptu rally for the president.
“If we elect Barack Obama, sure he’s going to be the president for everybody in the United States, and he’s always going to stand up and say, ‘I can’t single out this group or that group,’ ” said Rep. Mel Watt, whose Charlotte district includes the church.
But then Watt, typically low-key and monotone, suddenly erupted, like a preacher, and laid out why this president’s success is so vital to him — why “this is personal.”
“I know that Barack Obama looks like me,” Watt thundered, “and I know that he has some of our blood running through his veins.”
With that, the audience rose to its feet. “Yes!” shouted some. “Amen!”
Watt appeared stunned by his own emotion. And several women, clearly moved, rubbed their eyes with handkerchiefs.