By Eugene Robinson
Thursday, November 6, 2008
I almost lost it Tuesday night when television cameras found the Rev. Jesse Jackson in the crowd at Chicago's Grant Park and I saw the tears streaming down his face. His brio and bluster were gone, replaced by what looked like awestruck humility and unrestrained joy. I remembered how young he was in 1968 when he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., moments before King was assassinated and hours before America's cities were set on fire.
I almost lost it again when I spoke with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), one of the bravest leaders of the civil rights crusade, and asked whether he had ever dreamed he would live to see this day. As Lewis looked for words beyond "unimaginable," I thought of the beating he received on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the scars his body still bears.
I did lose it, minutes before the television networks projected that Barack Obama would be the 44th president of the United States, when I called my parents in Orangeburg, S.C. I thought of the sacrifices they made and the struggles they endured so that my generation could climb higher. I felt so happy that they were here to savor this incredible moment.
I scraped myself back together, but then almost lost it again when I saw Obama standing there on the stage with his family -- wife Michelle, daughters Malia and Sasha, their outfits all color-coordinated in red and black. I thought of the mind-blowing imagery we will see when this young, beautiful black family becomes the nation's First Family.
Then, when Michelle's mother, brother and extended family came out, I thought about "the black family" as an institution -- how troubled it is, but also how resilient and how vital. And I found myself getting misty-eyed again when Barack and Michelle walked off the stage together, clinging to one another, partners about to embark on an adventure, full of possibility and peril, that will change this nation forever.
It's safe to say that I've never had such a deeply emotional reaction to a presidential election. I've found it hard to describe, though, just what it is that I'm feeling so strongly.
It's obvious that the power of this moment isn't something that only African Americans feel. When President Bush spoke about the election yesterday, he mentioned the important message that Americans will send to the world, and to themselves, when the Obama family moves into the White House.
For African Americans, though, this is personal.
I can't help but experience Obama's election as a gesture of recognition and acceptance -- which is patently absurd, if you think about it. The labor of black people made this great nation possible. Black people planted and tended the tobacco, indigo and cotton on which America's first great fortunes were built. Black people fought and died in every one of the nation's wars. Black people fought and died to secure our fundamental rights under the Constitution. We don't have to ask for anything from anybody.
Yet something changed on Tuesday when Americans -- white, black, Latino, Asian -- entrusted a black man with the power and responsibility of the presidency. I always meant it when I said the Pledge of Allegiance in school. I always meant it when I sang the national anthem at ball games and shot off fireworks on the Fourth of July. But now there's more meaning in my expressions of patriotism, because there's more meaning in the stirring ideals that the pledge and the anthem and the fireworks represent.
It's not that I would have felt less love of country if voters had chosen John McCain. And this reaction I'm trying to describe isn't really about Obama's policies. I'll disagree with some of his decisions, I'll consider some of his public statements mere double talk and I'll criticize his questionable appointments. My job will be to hold him accountable, just like any president, and I intend to do my job.
For me, the emotion of this moment has less to do with Obama than with the nation. Now I know how some people must have felt when they heard Ronald Reagan say "it's morning again in America." The new sunshine feels warm on my face.