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November  07, 2008

Wendy Hilton-Morrow

Wendy Hilton-Morrow, assistant professor of speech communication, tells the story of election night and "family" in the crowd. Below, Wendy (left) with new friend Marcia (center) and Diann Gano. (Photo courtesy Duncan Brown)

"We went to Chicago to see Barack Obama on Election Night. At least that's what I thought as my dear friend Diann and I climbed into my Escape Hybrid and left my garage that Tuesday afternoon. We were pumped. Friends and family called us crazy. "Think about the crowds," they said. "It might not be safe," warned our families. But with all the giddiness of two college students on a Spring Break road trip, we headed out on I-88. We packed strategically . . . tickets, cameras, IDs, a single credit card, peanut M&Ms. Only the essentials. We were going to see Barack Obama.

"We boarded an empty Metra train in Aurora, settling in for the nearly two-hour ride into the city. As daylight and stations passed, the train filled with Obama regalia and a building buzz of excitement. Diann's phone stayed busy with text messages. "Have you seen the crowds?" "People everywhere." "They're expecting millions." We sipped our soda dinners laughing at the jealousy masked as concern from our family and friends. The train, now full of revelers, pulled into Union Station. No time to waste. Thousands of people just like us were going to see Obama.

"As we reached Michigan Avenue, the crowds came to a halt. People were everywhere. A line trailed down Congress Parkway and stretched around the corner out of sight. There was no pushing, no shoving, not a single complaint within earshot. No one minded because we were all going to see Obama.

In this festive crowd we met Marcia, Duncan, Joe, Jose, Akro and his family. They were relationships begun out of convenience. Marcia had television on her phone. We huddled around her tiny screen, with Duncan repeatedly lowering and raising his glasses as he tried to decipher miniscule results flashing on the split screen. "Obama 120," he'd yell. "Oh, wait. Maybe that's 108 . . . hard to see." From time to time he'd pull out his copied map of electoral votes for each state and we'd prognosticate when Obama's win would be inevitable. Diann befriended Joe and Jose, two ball-cap wearing Loyola students who seemed happy to have someone with whom to pass the time. As the crowd pushed forward through security, we met Akro, a middle-aged man there with young family members. As the sea of people caterpillared toward Grant Park, we'd cry out if we'd lost a member of our liminal family. "Where's Marsha?" "Grab my hand!" "Keep the family together!" Together, we were going to see Obama.

"Along with tens of thousands of others at Grant Park, we cheered as each projected win was announced on the Jumbotron image of CNN. We passed messages from our Blackberries - "NPR called Ohio for Obama!" -- and spread rumors texted to us from the outside world - "Oprah's backstage. Brad Pitt and Spike Lee are in the crowd." As we did, we also learned snippets of each other's lives. From Akro, a man of Indian heritage, we learned, three of his family members had just become American citizens. This was the first time they could vote. We cheered for them. Marcia, an African-American woman, had lost her father a year ago, and she pledged to him she'd work on Obama's campaign. Duncan, a white man, had never met Marcia before this day when she extended an e-mail invitation to be her guest. Everyone in Grant Park had a story that had brought them to see Obama.

"As the ten o'clock hour approached, we began a pool to guess what time McCain would deliver his concession speech. Minutes after ten, the announcement came - "CNN projects BARACK OBAMA ELECTED PRESIDENT!" Grant Park, the scene of brutal violence forty years prior, filled with deafening screams and strangers' embraces. It was a moment no one can ever take from us. We had come to see President-Elect Obama.

"Together, one hundred thousand people recited the pledge of allegiance more loudly and proudly than ever before. "Liberty and justice for all" were no longer empty words or a reminder of a broken promise. As President-Elect Obama took the stage, the crowd respectfully quieted, anxious to know how even a speaker as eloquent as Obama would find the words to match this profound moment. But, he did. Even in all that he'd accomplished, he spoke not about "I," but about "we," the nation and the world. As his strikingly beautiful family joined him on stage, Marcia grabbed my hand and cried, "She looks like ME! And, she's going to the White House." We had come to see the next first family of Obamas.

"We lost track of all of our "family" members over the course of the evening, with Marcia and Duncan separated from us in the post-event celebrations. Making our way back to Union Station, Diann and I navigated the makeshift vendors and impromptu celebrations. We were a crowd of people headed back to our own lives and our own stories. My story now included Marcia and Duncan and Joe and Jose and Akro. In that moment, I realized they were who I had come to Chicago to see.

"The next morning, drunken by lack of sleep, I prepared to step back into my roles as wife, mother, and educator. My six-year old son, the older of two boys, was confused why his mom would intentionally deprive herself of sleep all for a trip to Chicago. As I dropped him off at school and turned for my goodbye kiss, he asked in his exasperated 6-year-old tone, "BUT, MOM. . . why did you go?" I sat there in silence. For the first time, a tear formed in the corner of my eye. How could I begin to explain that I went to Chicago to see history and to see what could be."