A new dawn of American leadership is at hand.
President-elect Barack Obama
We have all heard stories about those few magical transformative moments in African-American history, extraordinary ritual occasions through which the geographically and socially diverse black community—a nation within a nation, really—molds itself into one united body, determined to achieve one great social purpose and to bear witness to the process by which this grand achievement occurs.
The first time was New Year’s Day in 1863, when tens of thousands of black people huddled together all over the North waiting to see if Abraham Lincoln would sign the Emancipation Proclamation. The second was the night of June 22, 1938, the storied rematch between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, when black families and friends crowded around radios to listen and cheer as the Brown Bomber knocked out Schmeling in the first round. The third, of course, was Aug. 28, 1963, when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed to the world that he had a dream, in the shadow of a brooding Lincoln, peering down on the assembled throng, while those of us who couldn’t be with him in Washington sat around our black-and-white television sets, bound together by King’s melodious voice through our tears and with quickened-flesh.
But we have never seen anything like this. Nothing could have prepared any of us for the eruption (and, yes, that is the word) of spontaneous celebration that manifested itself in black homes, gathering places and the streets of our communities when Sen. Barack Obama was declared President-elect Obama. From Harlem to Harvard, from Maine to Hawaii—and even Alaska—from “the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire … [to] Stone Mountain of Georgia,” as Dr. King put it, each of us will always remember this moment, as will our children, whom we woke up to watch history being made.
My colleagues and I laughed and shouted, whooped and hollered, hugged each other and cried. My father waited 95 years to see this day happen, and when he called as results came in, I silently thanked God for allowing him to live long enough to cast his vote for the first black man to become president. And even he still can’t quite believe it!
How many of our ancestors have given their lives—how many millions of slaves toiled in the fields in endlessly thankless and mindless labor—before this generation could live to see a black person become president? “How long, Lord?” the spiritual goes; “not long!” is the resounding response. What would Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois say if they could know what our people had at long last achieved? What would Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman say? What would Dr. King himself say? Would they say that all those lost hours of brutalizing toil and labor leading to spent, half-fulfilled lives, all those humiliations that our ancestors had to suffer through each and every day, all those slights and rebuffs and recriminations, all those rapes and murders, lynchings and assassinations, all those Jim Crow laws and protest marches, those snarling dogs and bone-breaking water hoses, all of those beatings and all of those killings, all of those black collective dreams deferred—that the unbearable pain of all of those tragedies had, in the end, been assuaged at least somewhat through Barack Obama’s election? This certainly doesn’t wipe that bloody slate clean. His victory is not redemption for all of this suffering; rather, it is the symbolic culmination of the black freedom struggle, the grand achievement of a great, collective dream. Would they say that surviving these horrors, hope against hope, was the price we had to pay to become truly free, to live to see—exactly 389 years after the first African slaves landed on these shores—that “great gettin’ up morning” in 2008 when a black man—Barack Hussein Obama—was elected the first African-American president of the United States?
I think they would, resoundingly and with one voice proclaim, “Yes! Yes! And yes, again!” I believe they would tell us that it had been worth the price that we, collectively, have had to pay—the price of President-elect Obama’s ticket.