Merlene Davis: Excitement for Obama's inauguration tempered with determination

Nancy Mae Jones Payne of Maysville was very ill Nov. 6 but determined to cast her ballot for Barack Obama. She died a month later.
Nancy Mae Jones Payne of Maysville was very ill Nov. 6 but determined to cast her ballot for Barack Obama. She died a month later.

Late into the evening of election day in November, my mind and emotions had taken all the ups and downs it could tolerate. I went to sleep not knowing if President Barack Obama would be re-elected.

I believed the pundits who seemed to confidently declare a Romney victory. Plus, deep down, I didn't want to listen to Obama's concession speech.

Fortunately, I didn't have to, and when I learned the next morning that Obama had won, I regretted missing out on the turning of yet another impossible page in American history.

Since then, though, I've wondered if others are sitting out parts of this new presidential victory and inauguration. I haven't heard of any inaugural viewing parties or celebration, unlike four years ago.

There seems to be less enthusiasm among Obama supporters for this inauguration. Then I talked to the Rev. Willis Polk and several others who told me I am dead wrong.

Polk, of Imani Baptist Church, was ill and unable to attend the inauguration in 2009 and he's experiencing flu-like symptoms and won't be able to attend this year, either. But that's not deterring his feelings about Obama's second term.

"If I could fly up there on Monday and return on Monday, I would go," he said.

From what Polk has observed, the excitement among black voters has not waned, he said. Members of Imani registered 300 people for the 2008 election, he said, but only one person last year. When Polk questioned why the number was so low, he was told people had taken the initiative to go register in person.

"I think the conservative right, with all the bashing on television and radio, has gotten black people fired up," he said.

Tava Clay, a retired Fayette County educator, joined two busloads of people who left Lexington on Saturday headed for a day of sightseeing and the inauguration. She went four years ago, as well.

"Everybody on the (National) Mall and at the monument was so congenial," Clay said. "It felt like one big happy nation for at least a while."

There is still emotion this year; it is just different, she said.

"The excitement is that the election was so up in the air for a lot of people," Clay said. "We made plans just hoping he would win. But we have some people in the group that said they had no doubts."

This weekend there will be people on the buses who weren't able to attend the inauguration of 2009 and they'll be bringing a familiar sense of urgency, she said. "Some said, 'I don't think I will have this opportunity again in my lifetime.' "

That premise is motivating my friend Toni King of Lexington to take her 11-year-old granddaughter, Taylor Simpson-Ellis of Louisville, to the inauguration.

Fifty years ago, King's mother, Nancy Mae Jones Payne of Maysville, learned that her nephew had been in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., when it was bombed and four young girls were killed. He was unharmed.

"My mom was a woman of few words," King said. "She never had a cross word to say about anybody."

Still, when members of the Maysville community decided to hold a peaceful march protesting the murders, Payne gathered her four daughters and took them to participate.

"I don't recall her saying why," King said. "It was just the right thing to do to protest this terrible thing that had happened. I guess all my life, that event has shaped the person that I am."

Payne was diagnosed with parotoid, or salivary gland, cancer when Obama was elected in 2008 and was too ill to travel. Treatment and surgery seemed to work for a while. Last year, however, she was diagnosed with end-stage cancer.

"This year, she was so sick, but she really, really wanted to go vote," King said.

And she did.

Despite the pain and discomfort, Payne had her daughter take her to the polls where she cast a ballot for Obama.

"She wasn't feeling at all well, but she felt it was her duty," King said.

Payne, 78, died a month later.

Meanwhile, King was retiring from the Department of Veteran Affairs in D.C., in January. Her two daughters asked what gift they could give her.

"I said I want to go to the inauguration and I plan on wearing Mom's hat, the one she wore to vote," King said.

King will leave for Washington on Sunday with her granddaughter Taylor.

"I am hoping this event will shape her life and be a history lesson for her," King said. "And by wearing Mom's hat, she will be going with us."

After talking with King, I realized I had been using the wrong word to describe how black voters feel this year. The excitement and joy of 2008 has been transformed into determination.

The efforts in several states to limit access to voting brought back stories our parents and grandparents had told us.

The disrespect and rudeness shown to Obama for four years is too similar to the affronts ordinary black people frequently face. And there has been one too many watermelon or black-face "jokes" about Obama, accosting our intelligence.

We have come too far to roll back down that hill.

Black people aren't excitedly shouting "Yes we can!" this time around.

Instead, we are standing firm, imitating the Nancy Mae Jones Paynes in our lives.

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