Bangor area blacks share their views on Obama victory

Posted Nov. 12, 2008, at 8:18 p.m.

“If you were to [leave aside] race, Barack Obama had everything this country says it wants in a leader.” Esther Rauch, Glenburn

BANGOR, Maine — On a Saturday afternoon more than nine months ago, Sterling Dymond left his house on Walter Street, got into his car and drove over to the Bangor Auditorium with the intention of getting into a rally held by Sen. Barack Obama, who at that point was a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president.

As Dymond turned his car up Buck Street, he couldn’t believe the number of people he saw waiting to get into the Auditorium.

“The line was clean past Third Street,” the 88-year-old Bangor native said. “I’d never seen that many people in a political rally in all my years in Bangor, Maine. I couldn’t get near the place.”

He turned around and went home and waited for a relative to come back from the rally to share his experiences.

Dymond didn’t have to get in a car or wait in a line Tuesday, Nov. 4, to experience history. That night he sat on his couch with his children and watched as Obama was elected president of the United States, the first time a black man has been elevated to the nation’s highest office.

“I felt elated,” said Dymond, who is black. “I was really elated. I’ve been waiting 88 years for this. So finally it has happened.”

While the majority of American voters picked Obama over Republican John McCain last week, it was an especially emotional moment for Dymond and other blacks living in the Bangor area. In Maine, where 96.7 percent of the population is white and just 0.8 percent is black, according to 2006 statistics from the U.S. Census, 58 percent of the electorate voted for Obama. That’s five percentage points higher than Obama got at the national level.

Maine has the second-smallest black population of any state that voted for Obama. Vermont, where 67 percent of the electorate picked the Illinois senator, has the same percentage of white people but is 0.7 percent black.

In Obama, said several black members of the community, voters clearly saw something presidential, regardless of the color of his skin.

“The man is smart. This is not about black, but about brilliance,” said Esther Rauch, a former University of Maine English professor who has served on boards for the University of Maine System, Eastern Maine Medical Center, Eastern Maine Healthcare System, and the Maine Humanities Council. She also held a chair in humanities at what is now Husson University in Bangor and is retired from the Bangor Theological Seminary, where she was a vice president.

“If you were to [leave aside] race,” she said, “Barack Obama had everything this country says it wants in a leader.”

One community leader believes Obama offered voters something different from previous black candidates, such as Shirley Chisholm and Jesse Jackson, who made runs for the Democractic presidential nominations with platforms that emphasized civil rights.

“A lot of black people didn’t even look at [Obama] as a black man,” said Old Town’s Jim Varner, the founder and president of the Maine Human Rights Coalition and former head of the local NAACP chapter. “For the first time in a presidential election in this country, period, I think they had an opportunity to look at a black man as just an American.”

That attitude, Varner added, seemed to be championed by young voters who helped sweep Obama into office.

“They see beyond race, they see beyond gender, they see beyond lifestyle,” he said. “They see Americans as people.”

The election seemed to energize young people on the University of Maine campus, said two UMaine students who are active in the school’s Black Student Union and recently served on a planning committee for the university’s new Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King Memorial Plaza.

Brandon McLaughlin, a UMaine junior and the newly elected BSU president, and Jovan Belcher, a senior, said the election was a frequent topic of conversation for the school football team, of which they are both members. McLaughlin voted for Obama. Belcher didn’t vote this year, but said he was excited about the outcome of the election.

“Just judging by the voter turnout, more people were paying attention to politics than ever before,” said McLaughlin, who is from Pittsburgh but is registered to vote in Maine. “The young generation got out to vote, and I think they’re definitely seeing the power they have to create change.”

During a spirited discussion at the Penobscot Job Corps about the election and the issues facing the U.S., some students said the pride they feel in having an African-American president will drive them in their own lives. Obama, they believe, is someone the community can emulate.

“I think he’s a very good representative for us,” said Natasha Baptiste, a 25-year-old Job Corps student from Boston who did not vote this year. “Of course he’s not perfect. No one is. So we need to [back him up] just like he’s representing us. It should make us want to work 10 times harder because this is a historic moment. Why would you want to slip, because now we have someone backing us. We have somebody on our side.”

Obama’s win also has affected and inspired those who weren’t old enough to vote.

“Anything is possible now that we have a black president,” said LaTrice Rocker, a Job Corps student from Hart-ford, Conn.

Not everyone was for Obama, however, or was willing to vote for a candidate just because he’s black. If Shelima Dickerson could have voted — the Job Corps student from Middletown, Conn., is 17 years old — she would have picked McCain because she agreed with his stand on abortion.

She probably wouldn’t have voted for a candidate just because he or she was black.

“I watched [an Obama-McCain] debate on TV, and after listening to both, I was more for McCain,” she said. “Everyone’s like, oh yeah, black president. But I thought, do you even know what he’s talking about? Yeah, I’m happy we have a black president, but I was more for McCain.”

The election has Job Corps student Omaira Salcedo, a 22-year-old native of Lawrence, Mass., wondering if another presidential first is within reach.

“This gives me hope that I’m going to be alive when we have the first woman president,” Salcedo said, eliciting cheers from the Job Corps group.

Rauch, who declined to say for whom she voted, said it’s traditionally been blacks who have tested the U.S. Constitu-tion, which is what she saw happen in this election.

The Constitution, she said, was written at a time when its authors likely didn’t foresee blacks voting, let alone being elected president. African-Americans were given the right to vote in 1870 by virtue of the 15th Amendment, while women waited until 1920 when the 19th Amendment was passed.

“It was [a test of], do you really believe in equal justice for all, and that all men should have equal opportunity,” said Rauch, who was born in Ala-bama in the late 1930s. “That’s what we’ve done, and we’ve done it again. For the first time in American history, a majority of the white community has said, OK, we’re willing to ac-knowledge that merit trumps race. In that sense, it’s not a victory for black people but a victory for all of America, be-cause it has lived up to its promise.”

Varner, 75, was no fan of McCain, but appreciated the Republican’s concession speech in which McCain called Obama’s election “historic” and recalled the 1901 visit of educa-tor and author Booker T. Wash-ington to the White House at the invitation of President Theodore Roosevelt, the first time a black man dined at the White House with a president.

The night of the election McCain told his supporters Obama’s win was evidence that “America today is a world away from the cruel and frightful bigotry” of its earlier history.

Obama will continue to make history when he is inaugurated Jan. 20, 2009. Varner hopes to be in Washington, D.C, for the swearing-in ceremony as he has been for several of Obama’s stops along the way.

Unlike Dymond, Varner made it to the Bangor Audito-rium for Obama’s February appearance and said he had even agreed to be a fill-in speaker in case the then-candidate was running late. Varner was able to shake Obama’s hand and a few months later went to Denver for the Democratic National Convention.

“I’m gonna be at that inaugu-ral on Jan. 20,” he said. “Jim Varner’s going to be in that audience somehow.”

BDN photographer John Clarke Russ contributed to this report

jbloch@bangordailynews.net

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