by Sarah Quartey, ’14
“Yes we can.”
My sister’s car was suspiciously cheap and laughably small, but it did have a redeeming quality: a phenomenal sound system. We cranked the volume up to thirty. As we passed by dozens of cars with red-, white-, and blue bumper stickers, we chanted to Will.I.Am’s take on an Obama speech, “Yes We Can.” The exuberant campaign season had come to an end, but we would see its departure in style – with silver tickets to the Inauguration of Barack Obama. Driving to Washington, D.C. that day was like taking part in a geese migration south: everyone headed in the same direction, everyone with the same purpose. Much honking and much shouting filled the air, and within my sister’s little car, much poor singing. Barack Obama’s path to the presidency had been studied by cars’ occupants. Could they know what he and I shared?
While interracial relationships were still stigmatized, my mother was mesmerized by the dance of a young African man to a Michael Jackson song. “If you’re thinking about my baby,” he assured my mother, “it don’t matter if you’re black or white.” Five years later, with two beautiful daughters, my father couldn’t resist a couple of verses of “Beat It.” My mom moved from Connecticut to my grandmother’s cramped cottage. As a child, life was good. I grew up in a safe neighborhood, far from the cockroach-infested projects of Hartford.
It only lasted for a couple of years. Bills piled up. One morning in late elementary school, I woke to the growl of a truck out front. I could hear my mother crying. “I don’t have anything else,” my mother pleaded. “I will pay. I will pay. Please don’t take my car. How will I get to work? How will I feed my baby girls?” But like all of us, the tow truck driver had a job to do. My mom watched, rooted to the front yard, as our repossessed car was dragged away. The streetlight highlighted her frozen body as if she were a statue exhibited at the Louvre. At that moment I made a resolution. Nightdress and all, I hurried down the stair case into the front yard. “I have a hundred dollars, mom,” I said, “It’s a start, right?”
“Yes we can to opportunity and prosperity.”
That early morning stayed with me. My resolution demanded I find someone to hire a fourteen-year-old. But my sister, equally determined to escape the tireless collectors and the merciless repossession truck, packed her bags and left for the university. Four years later and $80,000 in debt, she implored me not to take the same route. “Stay at your job, Sarah. Don’t go. Look at me – degree or not, I’m worse off than mom.”
“We have been told we cannot do this by a chorus of cynics.”
Yes we can. I made the decision long before Barack Obama spoke. Yes I can, yes I can. I can contribute to the family, I can go to college. My mom had her share of bad luck, but she instilled in me the importance of financial security. Unknowingly, my sister had stumbled down the wrong path – but I would learn from her mistakes. College had been my dream for so many years. Relinquish that? No way. FAFSA, CollegeBoard, the CSS/PROFILE, Stafford and Perkins, QuestBridge… I formed a new vocabulary. I fought for scholarship-worthiness. I studied, I discovered, I dreamed. I completed the investigation my sister had never known to do; I started the college process my mother had never considered: yes I can.
Nearly a year after that fateful speech, I stood in a crammed D.C. street. The wait gave me ample time to think. I worried about my sister’s debilitating loan payments. I worried about the SAT, the ACT, the Common App, and a host of other abbreviations. I worried about the hours of work I was missing for the event. On that January morning, when we lined up outside the Silver Gates half a mile from the Capitol, two million people trekked in the same direction: forward. It didn’t matter how many degrees below freezing the forecast predicted, or how many times the line wrapped around the block, or from how far each of us had come. It didn’t matter that my father flew-the-coop, or that my mother struggled, or that my sister made mistakes. Two million people and I couldn’t dwell on the unintentional shoving or the occasional potholes. What mattered was the progress, not the bumps along the way. These obstacles were nothing for what we were waiting for: change.
In the meantime, the frigid mass was not silent. The chant grew louder than anything a stellar sound system could produce.
“Yes we can.”
Sarah Quartey, a sophomore majoring in Urban Studies with a minor in Life Lessons, is interested in rallying for social change, scrapbooking, social justice law, and long nights debating the merits of who-knows-what. She’s dedicated to closing the socioeconomic gap.