America's History Gives Way to Its Future

On his journey to the White House, Obama drew enthusiastic support -- and often tears -- from his supporters.
By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 5, 2008

After a day of runaway lines that circled blocks, of ladies hobbling on canes and drummers rollicking on street corners, the enormous significance of Barack Obama's election finally began to sink into the landscape. The magnitude of his win suggested that the country itself might be in a gravitational pull toward a rebirth that some were slow to recognize.

Tears flowed, not only for Obama's historic achievement, but because many were happily discovering that perhaps they had underestimated possibility in America.

When the novelist Kim McLarin watched her vote being recorded at her polling station in Milton, Mass., she stood still for a moment with her 8-year-old son, Isaac. "My heart was full. I could scarcely breathe," she said. "What I've been forced to acknowledge is there has been a shift -- it's not a sea change. But there's been a decided shift in the meaning of race. It's not an ending. It's a beginning."

What kind of beginning it is, Americans were wrestling with late into the night, some popping champagne and others burdened with unease. Would enduring strains of intolerance lose their power or gain rebellious steam? Could new hope be harnessed to create new solutions? Is America ready to pull itself together or resigned to live divided? The campaign that began for Obama 21 months ago had raised in stark terms whether America was ready for a black president. Last night's answer -- a resounding yes -- raises the next question: How much more change will America embrace?

When McLarin learned last night that the nation had voted with her, she fell to her knees and clutched her children. Outside, car horns honked. Inside, she was trembling. "The feeling is indescribable," she said. "It's like this communal thing. It's transforming."

Across America, the revelry looked like a rolling collage of World Series celebrations. In the nation's capital, Pennsylvania Avenue outside the White House became the symbolic location for exultation. What began as a spontaneous gathering of 100 just past 11 p.m. soon mushroomed into thousands by 1 a.m., people chanting in the rain outside the home of George W. Bush. In Washington's hip nightlife corridor, U Street, traffic yielded to jubilation.

Presidential elections often reveal something about the nation's character, its temperament and state of mind. Many who are wondering how it happened that Barack Obama was elected president this season are also wondering what else they may be missing in their cities and towns and neighborhoods. Transformation rarely announces itself with trumpets. It usually happens gradually, over time, and then -- clang!-- a singular moment chimes the news. From its founding, the United States has seen itself as a special place, an example to other nations, a "city on the hill.'' With the election of its first black president, it can now begin to erase one of the stains on that reputation, one that repeatedly shamed us in front of other countries.

Some of the nation's old cleavages are disappearing, and Americans are beginning to rethink their notions of each other. Are the states really red or blue? Are the suburbs really white middle-class enclaves? Are the cities really wastelands for the poor?

Latinos have spearheaded half the nation's population growth this decade. Blacks are migrating back to the South. Millennials are migrating toward each other, regardless of race or ethnicity. They are helping to define these times simply through their mastery of the Internet and their idea of borderless social interaction. Like that 89-character text message that's been forwarded from cellphone to cellphone, a new generation honoring an older one: "Rosa sat so Martin could walk. Martin walked so Barack could run. Barack is running so our children can fly."

The millennials may have found their first president -- one who engages them in their own space. The political geography of the country is getting all mixed up, too. The movement of Californians and new immigrants to states such as New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada are changing the complexion of the inter-mountain West.

And then there is the living history of America, an America with citizens who were sharecroppers, who were chomped on by dogs while trying to register to vote, who hid behind hooded white robes at night and ran businesses in the day. They are us, too, still alive, living among one another.

Lorraine Bell's grandmother was part of that history, but Georgia Bardley is gone. In 1937, Bardley paid a $3 poll tax for a Mississippi election in which she was too frightened to vote. On Tuesday, Bardley's granddaughter, and her granddaughter's daughters, waited two hours in Bowie to vote for Obama, holding aloft the faded, yellowed poll tax receipt signed by the Noxubee County sheriff. "We felt that not only were we voting for ourselves," said Bell, "but we were voting for my grandparents and for all the African Americans who were ever denied the vote."

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