In Ailing Delta, High Hopes Add to Burden For Obama

Michael Leahy, Washington Post, Jan. 19, 2009

Helen Perkins can feel the worries of her neighbors–and their expectations. “The things that some of our people hope from Obama–more help, better homes in a hurry–sound like they’re hoping for a miracle from God,” she says.

At 63, Perkins lives in Hollandale, a town of about 2,900 in the Mississippi Delta, historically a fertile territory for big agriculture and bigger misery. Chronically poor, largely African American, loyally Democratic in an otherwise very red state, the Delta is a land where deprivation and diminished dreams are as indigenous as cotton. Poverty levels, obesity and diabetes rates, teenage pregnancy statistics, failing businesses: All the bad indices are woefully high in the Delta.

Not far from the site of the first of Hollandale’s many collapsed houses is a sign at the town border: “Welcome to Hollandale: A town preparing for the future today.” For many expectant people here, that future will turn on Barack Obama.

On Election Day, Hollandale went for Obama in a landslide, giving him 78 percent of its vote, or 1,279 votes to John McCain’s 367. A former mayor of the town, and the first African American to hold the position, Perkins never had seen voting lines so long at the Hollandale municipal hall, where more than 100 residents lined up before the polls opened at 7 a.m. “There were some people who’d never voted because they’d never seen the point in voting,” she said. “Barack has made them believe; Barack has given them hope.”

For the same reason, she sees political risks for Obama, in the Delta and every other distressed American community that voted heavily for him. “I know some people will be disillusioned if their lives don’t change much in the next eight years,” she says. “Even with Barack in there, they don’t really believe in the system–they think it’s lowdown, dirty, dog-eat-dog. But they’re giving it a chance now because of him. A lot is at stake. If it doesn’t work out, there’ll be more apathy and anger than ever. People will really be dogging him.”

Since the start of his political ascension, Obama has served as that rare vessel into which disparate voters have poured their sometimes conflicting dreams. For Perkins and others in the Delta, he embodied the transformative politics of the moment: cool at a time when the prototypical pol ran bombastically hot, a trumpeter of reform who wanted to “turn the page” on political dynasties like those of the Clintons and Bushes, and a trailblazer whose very presence as an African American with a viable shot at winning the presidency beckoned an unprecedented change at once generational, racial, epochal.

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Perkins hears so many residents expecting a quick transformation that she says she wants to tell them to “be realistic, give the man time, give him a few years at least.”

She is staring at the town’s shuttered catfish plant as she mutters this. A rusty truck sits in front of the plant, a man behind the wheel, going nowhere. “What Obama delivers to people will determine if people here stay excited, I guess,” she says. “I’m not going to get disillusioned ever about him. But I worry for him. I know people need jobs. And I know some people here will maybe lose faith in him if something better doesn’t come. People are going to be dogging him to get it. It could be hard. He’s not God; he’s a politician. Some people get the two confused sometimes.”

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