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With Obama Win, Elation and a Lingering Divide

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A center of black culture and history, the New York neighborhood of Harlem welcomed the news that Barack Obama had been elected the first black president with a loud celebration.Video by Travis Fox

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By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 5, 2008

On a wall next to Harlem's historic Apollo Theater, near a painting of Malcolm X, a new canvas hung last night -- a huge likeness of Barack Obama and the words: "We Made History 2008."

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As night fell in the cultural capital of black America, the election of the nation's first black president was hailed as the coming of a savior. "I didn't think I'd see this," said one resident, Antoinette Moore, 40. "I'm seeing it now and I still don't believe it."

But there was jubilation well beyond Harlem, as the Illinois Democrat sealed his momentous and history-making victory. From New York to California to Washington, D.C., tens of thousands of voters wept, cheered and danced in the streets, expressing joy, disbelief and a hard-to-define sense of hope.

"There's something else going on here," said Lois Robson, a 67-year-old nutrition specialist at a senior citizens' recreation center in Santa Monica, Calif. "There's something else going on."

Robson opened and closed her hands while she spoke, as if grasping for what it was.

"It represents a total departure, and a big change," she said. "It will electrify this country, and it will electrify the world. America is reinventing herself again."

"I think a lot of Americans are proud of themselves, that after so many years we can look beyond the color of a man's skin and hear his words," she said. "That's something to be proud of, and I am. I'm proud to be an American."

Several Obama supporters spoke, often emotionally, about how he reminded them of revered Americans of the past -- Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy.

"To me, he's like JFK," Joanne Cherkas, a 63-year-old nurse in Scranton, Pa., said of Obama. "JFK didn't have all that much experience, and he was young, but he turned this country around."

In Santa Monica, Claudia Schaffer, 61, said Obama recalled Robert Kennedy. "He's the first person since Bobby Kennedy that makes me feel hopeful," she said.

Yet in Pennsylvania's Lackawanna River valley, Scranton retiree Guy Pelosi, 82, had a different view. "I don't trust Obama," he said. "He has a laundry list this long of things he says he'll do. He ain't going to get it all in."

Even as American voters in vast numbers cast their ballots in one of the nation's most historic elections, they brought to a close a long and contentious campaign, one that leaves behind deep partisan wounds that are likely to trouble the country well into the new presidency.


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