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Making A New America

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009; Page A11

During the heat of the Democratic primaries, Hillary Clinton had no more fervent supporter than my younger daughter. But Julia, then 10, needed no prompting to grasp the importance of Barack Obama's candidacy.

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"Mom, it would be really great to have a woman president," she said. "But it would be a bigger deal to have an African American president."

Forgive this bit of parental tale-telling, but her comment has been on my mind. I understood, on an intellectual plane, the significance of electing the first black president. Yet, until he was sworn in, I don't think I fully absorbed its overwhelming emotional force.

A few snapshots along the way:

· It's several weeks after the election, and I have the privilege of being invited to read to Mr. Canady's third-grade class at Emery Elementary in Northeast. Every child is African American. On the wall is a glossy poster of Obama. "It changes how black children look at themselves," Obama said when he visited The Post last week. "It also changes how white children look at black children."

· I'm reading the newspaper, and the day's obituaries leap out as a symbol of the changing times. Charles Morgan, the civil rights lawyer who helped establish the principle of "one person, one vote." Cornelia Wallace, the widow of segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace. William Zantzinger, the privileged landowner who hit a black barmaid with his cane when she was too slow serving his drink. The barmaid later died, and the ugly episode was immortalized in Bob Dylan's ballad "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll."

Could any of these three have foreseen this moment? Morgan, perhaps. "The civil rights movement is freeing the Negro from the bondage of slavery," the New York Times obituary quotes him as saying, "and the South is being freed from the bondage of the Negro, and the nation will be freed from the bondage of the South. And then you know what we're going to do? We're going to re-create America."

· We're at an inaugural party at the Smithsonian's newly reopened National Museum of American History. On the way, we had driven by Constitution Hall, where the Daughters of the American Revolution had barred Marian Anderson from singing. Now, we stand eating our sushi and dumplings next to a gleaming lunch counter -- the lunch counter, transported intact from the F.W. Woolworth store in Greensboro, N.C., where four black students sat down one day in February 1960, asked to be served and refused to leave. Standing nearby is Eric Holder, soon to be the first African American attorney general. Holder's late sister-in-law was one of the first two blacks to integrate the University of Alabama. Re-creating America indeed.

· And now, on the Mall, the Capitol dome majestic as always, Aretha Franklin singing "My Country, 'Tis of Thee." How many times have I heard this song, but today, "Let Freedom Ring" has a potent new resonance. They were King's words, spoken from the other end of this long stretch now jammed with people. "This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning," King said, describing his dream nearly 46 years ago.

Of course, Obama's election does not mean King's dream is realized, not by a long way. But as Gwen Ifill writes in her book "The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama," "Perhaps breakthroughs are on the verge of becoming enough of a part of the national political landscape that at some point we will cease noticing them altogether."

Or our children will. Lately, Julia has been reading "To Kill a Mockingbird." At the part when Tom Robinson, a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman, goes on trial, I ask her what she expects. "I think Atticus will get him off," she says, with a child's serene confidence in the essential goodness of mankind. I hate that she is about to be disappointed; I love the contrapuntal lesson that Obama's inauguration sends. And I look forward to the day I can stand with Julia and watch the first female president deliver her inaugural address.


The writer will be online to take reader questions at 1 p.m. Submit your questions here.

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