But I know, a change is gonna come.
Oh, yes it will.
Sam Cooke, “A Change is Gonna Come”
At 11:01 p.m. last night, after the polls closed in California, I just had to call someone. I’d spent the night at the National Public Radio headquarters with a bunch of other bloggers, live-blogging the election results. I called home and spoke briefly to my husband, then found myself walking aimlessly down a hallway. I stopped in a reception area, looked at the night sky from the second story window, and though how strange it was that the world — my world had changed so dramatically — yet the sky looked just the same.
And I thought about the people who didn’t live to see what happened that night, and the people who never thought they would — but did.
I thought of Charles Alexander.
He didn’t say it in so many words, but I’m willing to bet that Charles Alexander has thought to himself at some point, “I never thought I’d live to see the day…
I thought of Gertrude Baines, a 114-year-old daughter of former slaves who cast her vote for Barack Obama in this election. I thought of Ann Nixon Cooper, the 106-year-old daughter of former slaves Obama mentioned in his speech last night, and who also cast her vote for him. I thought of all they’d seen — all under the same unchanged sky I gazed upon last night — and how they’d seen the day they likely never thought they would.
To understand why, you have to understand the context of their America.
For African-Americans, at least those of us old enough to have lived through the civil rights movement, this is nothing short of mind-blowing. It’s disorienting, and it makes me see this nation in a different light.
You see, I remember a time of separate and unequal schools, restrooms and water fountains—a time when black people were officially second-class citizens. I remember moments when African-Americans were hopeful and excited about the political process, and I remember other moments when most of us were depressed and disillusioned. But I can’t think of a single moment, before this year, when I thought it was within the realm of remote possibility that a black man could be nominated for president by one of the major parties—let alone that he would go into Election Day with a better-than-even chance of winning.
Let me clarify: It’s not that I would have calculated the odds of an African-American being elected president and concluded that this was unlikely, it’s that I wouldn’t even have thought about such a thing.
African-Americans’ love of country is deep, intense and abiding, but necessarily complicated. At the hour of its birth, the nation was already stained by the Original Sin of slavery. Only in the past several decades has legal racism been outlawed and casual racism made unacceptable, at least in polite company. Millions of black Americans have managed to pull themselves up into mainstream, middle-class affluence, but millions of others remain mired in poverty and dysfunction.
…Along came Barack Obama, a young man with an unassailable résumé and a message of post-racial transformation. Initially, a big majority of African-Americans lined up behind his major opponent in the Democratic primaries, Hillary Clinton. The reason was simple: In the final analysis, white Americans weren’t going to vote for the black guy. Better to go with the safe alternative.
But an amazing thing happened. In the Iowa caucuses, white Americans voted for the black guy. That’s the moment Obama was referring to when he said his faith in the American people was vindicated. For me, it was the moment when the utterly impossible became merely unlikely. That’s a huge, fundamental change, and it launched a sequence of events over the subsequent months that made me realize that some things I “knew” about America were apparently wrong.
I thought of my father, the one person I wanted most to call last night — thought of all he had seen and all he “knew” of America — and quietly called out to him, as I looked up at the night sky; the sky that still looked the same.
“Dad, did you see? Do you know? You waited, we all waited for a change to come. It came tonight. Did you see? Do you know?”
On April 26, 2006, my father passed away. Born in 1930, he was 75 years old. He was born and raised in Dawson GA, by parents who were sharecroppers. He joined the Army, married my mother (they had 50 years together before he passed away), served in Korea and Vietnam, and fathered three children, raised and educated us.
Growing up in the south before the modern civil rights movement, and serving in the military as a black man, I know my father experienced discrimination; probably more than he ever let us know. But he did not let it stop him from doing his best for us and encouraging us to be our best. Once he drove us several hours to Macon, GA, to see the daughter of a family friend graduate from medical school. I didn’t understand why until we were leaving, and he stopped and said to us very emphatically, “I wanted you to see this because I wanted you to know that is something you can do. If you want to, and you work for it, you can do it.”
I never forgot that, and as I stood among the crowds in Denver on the last night of the convention, and listened to Sen. Obama accept the nomination, I thought of my father. I wished he was alive to see that moment, and thought of how I’d like to be able to pick up the phone and share it with him. And I shed a tear. Separated by distance, and difference — him a staunch Baptist church deacon, and me a gay man and a practicing Buddhist — moments like that one often brought us together.
Now I have two sons of my own now — one nearly six years old, and the other 11 months old — and I want to leave them a country and and world in much better shape than it is now. I want a chance for them to live in a country where they have a chance to become whatever their talents and abilities place within their reach.
Last night, that world came within their reach, and perhaps within ours too.
Across this country, of the countless voters who stepped into the voting booth, some who voted for Obama no doubt had to take a long, hard look at themselves; to peer at the nagging discomfort they might have felt upon voting for a man who doesn’t look like any previous president and whose undeniably ethnic, non-Anglo surname (as one NPR anchor put it) “ends in a vowel” — a man whose lineage goes more directly back to Africa than mine or many other African Americans, and whose parents’ marriage would have been illegal less than a generation ago — no matter how right for the country they thought a president Obama would be. And they either got over those feelings and cast their vote, or cast their vote in spite of them.
And then they stepped out into a different world, under the same sky as before they entered the voting booth, but changed world nonetheless. A world they had helped to change, an act joining them to every progressive movement in our history — from the abolitionist movement, to the suffragists movement, the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement, and every movement that worked to extend the promise of American to more Americans than perhaps was intended at its founding; every movement that, as conservatism in every era was “standing athwart history, yelling ‘Stop’,” said “Yes we can.” And then did.
As I left the relative quiet of NPR HQ, I stepped into a cacophonous celebration on the streets of DC, unlike anything I’ve seen after living here for 14 years. The streets were full of people — young, old, black, white, brown, etc — cheering, honking their horns, waving from car windows and sunroofs.
People ran into the street to hi-five each other. Buses carrying passengers and trucks making late night deliveries honked their horns. At stoplights, people ran down the street, hi-fiving rows of cars. As I waited to cross street after street, I hi-fived total strangers who walked by with their hands raised.
You’d have thought the Redskins had won the Super Bowl, or that a war had just ended. There was that much joy in the streets.
After walking from the NPR building to 16th & Q NW, I gave up trying to get a taxi, and instead waited for a bus. As I waited, a spontaneous parade of people cheering Obama’s election came down the street.
The cheering continued on the bus full of people celebrating a world they had helped change.
Now, I can do for my eldest son what my father did for me, years ago. He and I started a scrapbook two years ago. We put in it pictures of African Americans who have accomplished great things, and I contribute short descriptions of what each did. Sen. Obama is in that book, and my son is very excited about the possibility that Sen. Obama may become president. He even voted for Sen. Obama online, in Nickelodeon’s “Kids pick the President.” (Actually, he insisted I help him vote on the site.)
We live in the metro-D.C. area, and I will take my oldest son to the inauguration. I will make sure he witnesses the moment my father didn’t live to see. And when the oath of office is done, I will turn to my son, look him in the eye and say, “I wanted you to see this because I want you to know that is something you can do. If you want to, and you work hard at it, you can be whatever you want to be. Even president.”
And from that moment, my son will be growing up in a world my father didn’t, and that even I didn’t; a world with more possibilities open to him than existed before; closer, at least, to the world as it should be than the world as it was. Or is.