For Obama Volunteer, A Solitary Sense of History
Md. Mother Sometimes Feels Like Outsider In the Youthful, 'Post-Racial' Campaign

By Krissah Williams Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 30, 2008

Donnell Stewart dragged her 19-year-old son out of the house, again, on a bright Saturday morning for the same reason she had all those other weekend mornings. "We're going Obama- eering," she sang out.

Desmond knew well not to argue. When he moved home last year after he was injured and lost his football scholarship at Hampton University, his mother told him he had to do two things to live under her roof: "You will go to college," she said. "And you will volunteer for Barack Obama."

Nearly every weekend since, they have gotten in the "Obama-bile" -- Stewart's beat-up maroon SUV, plastered with "Got Hope?" decals and other Obama bumper stickers -- and driven hours from their home in Catonsville, Md., to volunteer. The vehicle's transmission conked out last week.

Stewart believes the election of Obama would be "utterly life-changing," fundamentally transforming the way blacks think about themselves. "There is a depth of meaning to this election that can only be grasped by African Americans," she said.

Yet her journey sometimes has left her feeling like an outsider among the tens of thousands of young volunteers in the Obama campaign, a fast-moving mini-world where the term "post-racial" is batted around and colorblindness is a goal of many. For Stewart, the goal is advancing the black community. She has trouble understanding how this election could mean to those young workers anything close to what it means to her.

Even at home, Stewart often finds herself alone in her passion. Her boyfriend plans to vote for Obama, but that's the extent of his participation. The Democrat's historic campaign means little to him personally. While he admires what Stewart has done, he also finds much of it amusing.

And then there is Desmond, the reluctant volunteer. He, more than anyone, drives Stewart to try to make this history happen. The promise of the Obama campaign has made her see Desmond's future differently, and she wants him to see what she sees. Now, she said, "I'm not lying when I tell him you can be anything you want, even president."

On a Mission

"I'd hate to think if [Obama] lost, I was home doing my laundry," Stewart told Desmond one Saturday last month.

So the dirty clothes were in a pile as they left their one-story cottage with an Obama-Biden sign in the yard and two in the front windows. Mom pulled her hair back in a pony tail, threw on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt she bought at her first Democratic National Convention. She and Desmond headed south to Virginia, part of a groundswell of African American participation this election. A poll by ABC News, USA Today and Columbia University found that blacks are volunteering and donating money in this race at a rate far greater than whites and Hispanics.

The Stewarts' first stop was the Obama for America office in a run-down Alexandria strip mall, two doors from a burned-out laundromat and around the way from a Check Into Cash shop, to pick up registration forms and instructions. They were handed out by an Asian man in his 20s, who gave a quick and emotionless briefing.

"I've volunteered many places, and the only common denominator is the people in charge look as young as my son," Stewart said afterward. "I drove two hours; I expect someone to say, 'Hello. How are you?' "

She feels a twinge of annoyance at the campaign letting young people run things. "Some of them could use some home training," she said. "I think many of them don't realize the slights. You can only blame their parents for that."

She taught Desmond to address anyone older than his mother as Miss or Mister, and she expects the same from other young people. It irks her when they call her Donnell, and she will correct them with a stern "Ms. Stewart."

At the convention, Stewart got close to Michelle Obama -- a fellow Princeton graduate whom Stewart knew causally way back when -- and got the urge to pass her a note. She wanted to let her know that she is volunteering like crazy and willing to do more, even to take a leave from Howard County's health department, where she is a supervisor.

But Stewart was sure she could not get the note past the two young white women working as Michelle's gatekeepers. Her pride caught her, and the note stayed in her pocket.

"I couldn't bring myself to beg them," she said.

On this day, Stewart pushed past her feelings and followed the young man's instructions to stand in front of a Springfield strip mall soliciting unregistered voters.

"How long do we have to be here?" Desmond asked as they arrived. "I'm about to feel like a goon running up to people in the parking lot."

"As long as it takes," Stewart told him. "Until we feel done. Do what you've got to do, boo!"

Stewart sent him to stand in front of PetSmart. She took Best Buy. Desmond, wearing a red, black and green Obama T-shirt -- the colors symbolizing pan-African pride -- found no takers among the pet owners he solicited. His mother collected four registration forms in three hours and spent 20 minutes trying to persuade an undecided Filipino couple to vote for Obama.

"I was at the convention in Denver," she told them, "and I saw people of all shapes and sizes together for one reason, supporting Barack Obama. Then I looked at the Republican convention, and they fit the stereotype."

In politics, racial diversity matters to her, along with her opposition to the war in Iraq and worries about the economy. She's "one of those people that count the number of black people at an event."

"I want to make sure I'm represented," she said.

Stewart's strong sense of racial identity came from growing up in a predominantly white housing project in Cambridge, Mass., where hers was one of only three black families in the neighborhood. Her mother, Donna Lassiter, was a loving but strict sixth-generation New Englander, and when her daughter came home crying once because she felt she was being mistreated by a teacher because she was black, Lassiter admonished her that "race is never an excuse."

But when she was 8 or 9, she also saw her mother take a neighbor to court for harassment for referring to Stewart with a racial epithet. "I understood there were some things that were inviolable," Stewart said, some lines that don't get crossed. "Race was one of those things."

Passion Not Always Shared

At home on a rare Saturday afternoon, Stewart sat in her living room with her boyfriend, Wayne Mack, a 48-year-old Maryland State Police officer who doesn't see any particular personal reward in an Obama victory.

"When I wake up on Election Day, it will be Tuesday. If Obama wins, it will still be Tuesday. I don't see how at the level people are working here, Obama's election will change their lives other than him saying, 'Thank you very much -- you are one of the millions who helped me get elected,' " Mack said. "I think it is great, but I don't see him becoming president changing my life that much."

Not Stewart. She is taking Nov. 5 off, to spend the day in either exultation or despair.

Mack was surprised when Stewart went to Denver for the convention and when she donated to Obama's campaign $1,000 of the home-equity loan she took out to pay for Desmond's tuition.

Stewart did not talk to Mack for a day after he refused to put an Obama bumper sticker on his car.

To share her passion, Stewart turns to Juanita Duckett, 45, who lives outside Philadelphia and has been her best friend since Princeton. They call themselves "classmates of Michelle for Obama," and they talk almost every day about the campaign.

"Did you see your senator today in Philly?" Stewart asked.

"No. I'm really upset because I really wanted to be there," Duckett said. "I didn't know where he was. I did get a few voter registration forms today, though."

"Woo-hoo! Go, girl."

Easter Sunday before the Pennsylvania primary, the two girlfriends campaigned together, visiting black churches and soliciting volunteers. When they returned to the Obama campaign office in their Sunday best, they found pizza for supper and "sneakers up on the table." That was a turnoff for some of the older black volunteers, who left, Stewart said. She took it as another sign of a lack of understanding of black culture and the meaning this campaign holds.

Even with the aggravations, Obama's run feels like a healing salve for all the cuts Stewart believes life has doled out because of the color of her skin. Such as the time a white female boss she considered a friend told her she was "intimidating."

"I couldn't understand it," Stewart recalled. "I decorated my office with rubber duckies and gave away candy. How is that intimidating?"

She felt stereotyped in the way Michelle Obama has been at times -- called "scary" by a woman Stewart met and discussed in a segment about "angry black women" on Fox News.

"I thought, how many times have I been told that? I'm tall, I'm smart, I speak my mind, and therefore I'm terrifying," Stewart said. "When I ask for specifics, there are none."

The campaign has tapped a well of emotions. Mascara rolled down Stewart's face in Denver as she watched Obama accept the Democratic nomination before a crowd of more than 84,000. She felt that the country had reached a new level of racial acceptance, if not understanding.

Other times, her blood pressure has risen when she had read about "white working-class" voters who tell reporters and commentators that they won't vote for Obama because he is black, or that he doesn't represent the "real America."

"They are pretty much angry anytime they see us doing anything when we are trying to advance ourselves as a people," Stewart said. "I am fairly used to angry white folks, and they find excuses to make themselves the victim whenever we gain little or big steps, [such as] the tiny number of African Americans who get into school because of racial preferences over the large number of whites who get in because of alumni and other entitlement programs."

When she and Desmond sit down for a meal, they say grace and a short prayer for Obama. He is the kind of man Desmond wants to tell his own children about someday. Desmond may not be the eager volunteer that his mother is, but he said the sense of living history that she has been trying so hard to teach him is sinking in. He said some black teenagers think of rappers Jay-Z and Tupac Shakur as role models, but the campaign has made it clear that they are not the real deal.

"This is the first time in a long time that black people are actually going to have someone to look up to who is respected universally, around the world," if Obama wins the election, Desmond said. "It won't change things overnight. It's a mentality shifter more so than something you can reach out and touch."

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