Thursday, November 6, 2008

I want to write something about Obama’s election and find that I am simultaneously devoid of thought and overwhelmed by its significance. When the radio announcer declared that Obama had won Pennsylvania and, therefore, given the election to Obama, it was a few minutes after five on Tuesday afternoon. I was pulling into the drive through of In ‘N’ Out burger and my daughter and her friend were in the back seat of the car. My daughter and her friend always have the same things. Cheeseburger, just the meat, cheese and bun, one has a lemonade the other a milk shake. Chocolate, appropriately enough. I always have a strawberry shake and refused to change to chocolate even for Obama. Remember, I was in a drive through, one of the least ecologically sound things a person can do. Despite my enthusiastic, emotional, gut churning vote for Obama on Tuesday morning I was still a polluter and a fruit drinker. We waited an hour to vote, mingled with the neighbors, knew that the world was about to change. Yes, despite the fact that the three of us in that car, in that line of cars at the burger joint, were doing exactly what we had done on our previous visits, despite the fact that the sun would go down at its predicted time, that declaration of Obama’s win in Pennsylvania, denying McCain his only path to victory, changed our lives forever. I wept. The burgers came, the fries came, the shakes came and they were as good as ever, those unchangingly excellent products of In ‘N’ Out and the world shifted on its axis.
When the call was made that Obama had won – after the polls closed on the West coast - the TV flashed pictures of Grant Park in Chicago where two hundred thousand people gathered to await Obama’s acceptance speech. In the frame, almost completely filling it, was an African American woman who had collapsed and was doubled over on her knees weeping uncontrollably. It was an entirely appropriate response, the only one possible, perhaps. The sheer weight of history, the unfathomable reality that the United States of America, a country whose Constitution enumerated the value of an African as three fifths of a human being, a country that had beaten and raped and shackled millions upon millions of Africans and their descendants, whose Capitol was built by slaves, whose shining city on a hill was polished by black hands, had elected an African American as its President. Collapse and the mingling of joy and grief, tears for the finest hour and the lost souls, this inevitably and unavoidably adulterated euphoria, these are what I will remember from Tuesday November the fourth two thousand and eight. And my daughter filling in a map of the states with red and blue dots to note the way each state had voted and her falling asleep as Obama came to the microphone. What we forget is that the emancipation of the slaves, the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, freed us all. Before he got those two acts through Congress, Lyndon Johnson spoke to the nation about civil rights. The speech was televised and Martin Luther King Jr. and his aides gathered to watch it. Johnson was not a great prepared speaker but his words were strong and forceful and he talked of the marchers and of the song that they sang – We Shall Overcome – and he ended the speech with those words, “We shall overcome”. To hear the American President speak those words to a country mired in the horrors of the civil rights struggle, to say to a vastly white population that they would now have to accept all Americans as their equals under the law by quoting that song was as momentous as Obama’s election, possibly more so. In his seat in the corner of the room where he watched the speech Martin Luther King wept. On this day he would have wept again, a mixture of grief and joy and, perhaps, have thought for at least one shining moment, We Have Overcome.

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