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History Calling in Harlem

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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 Richard Cohen
Thursday, November 6, 2008

NEW YORK -- Up in Harlem, on the boulevard named for Malcolm X, stands the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a branch of the New York Public Library, and it was to its Langston Hughes Auditorium, named for the great black poet, that I went Tuesday night, notebook in hand, to interview History and marvel at what it had done. Where in the world had the past gone?

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Charlie Rangel was wondering the same thing. He is the congressman from Harlem but, more important, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, a Korean War veteran, tough as the nearby streets and vaccinated against disappointment by life itself. He mounted the stage, talked about seeing parents taking their kids to the polls and, in a voice perilously close to cracking, said, "I never thought I'd see my country take the children of slaves and make one of them the leader of the free world."

Of course, Barack Obama is not a descendant of slaves -- but that is hardly the point. The point is that he would have been a slave himself in another era and then denied the right to vote in another and then schooled separately and inferiorly and then humiliated and routinely treated with contempt -- so routinely that the white world would hardly have noticed.

During the presidency of Herbert Hoover, Congress appropriated funds for the mothers of soldiers killed in World War I to go to Europe to visit their graves. The government then divided the women by race. "White mothers sailed to Europe in style while black mothers whose sons had been killed in their country's service were assigned to 'cattle ships.' " This is from William E. Leuchtenburg's forthcoming "Herbert Hoover," a wonderful and instructive biography.

If you read history, you come across these ugly episodes all the time. Racism in America was not just about school segregation, or blacks in the back of the bus, or even the eruption of violence we hear so much about, but also an insufferable ordinariness, a daily slap in the face, thousands and thousands of cuts and abrasions and an attempt to crush the spirit.

Harlem knows all about that. It is the capital of black America. The man up on the stage, Rangel, is the lineal-political descendant of Adam Clayton Powell, the first black congressman from New York. Powell, too, now has a street named for him.

Another book: In her memoir, Helen Gahagan Douglas wrote about hiring a black secretary. This was 1945, shortly after she had been elected to Congress and five years before she would be slimed by Richard Nixon as the "Pink Lady" in the dirtiest of all senatorial races. The secretary was named Juanita Terry, and she was forbidden, Douglas wrote, to eat in the "staff cafeteria or dining room of the House of Representatives. . . . I raised a storm and ended segregation" -- and one of those to benefit was Powell's own secretary.

In 1967, Powell was expelled from Congress for corruption. By then, his brilliance and fervor had turned to anger and entitlement -- a mixture made toxic by the color of his skin. When voters returned him to office nevertheless, I went up to his headquarters in Harlem, and he said "Keep the faith, baby" and gloried in a sweet vindication. But by 1970 he had lost his seat (to Rangel), and by 1972 he was dead, only 63, a tall man brought low by a refusal to stoop.

The crowd in the Langston Hughes Auditorium was slow to warm up. They had been given noisemakers, but maybe the polls were wrong. Maybe the election would be stolen. But then, like saluting soldiers, the states started to fall in line: New Jersey, Maine, Delaware, Illinois. A whoop and some hollering for each. But these were all expected to go for Obama. What about Pennsylvania, the great battleground state that had gone for Hillary Clinton in the primaries?

Pennsylvania fell with a thud. On the large TV screen on the stage, it crashed to the ground at precisely 8:39 CNN time. It set off an explosion that rolled out onto Malcolm X Boulevard, and then, in a block or two, it seemed to settle down and then it stilled. Out on the boulevard, youths hung out and others strolled (it was balmy), and it seemed like nothing had happened. But it had -- irrevocably. History was out in the street, invisible but powerful, and it would, you'll see, improve lives the way it had once ruined them. Change: It can happen.

cohenr@washpost.com


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