Barack Hussein Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States on Nov. 4.
What was once a distant possibility – and an audacious hope – has become an extraordinary fact. The election of a black president was considered so unlikely that it seemed silly to even contemplate. I never thought it would happen in my lifetime.
When CNN announced Obama had won, tears unexpectedly welled in my eyes. The election of the nation’s first black president struck some deep psychic chord.
But outside of my psyche, a President Obama has many meanings – some contradictory. I feel strong pride that such a talented black American has accomplished such a towering feat against such overwhelming odds.
I am proud Obama’s team mounted an innovative 21st century campaign that left many of us scratching our heads in 20th century bemusement.
I feel pride that this nation is making bold steps to atone for its original sin. That theme also resonates with many black civil rights activists. Some have likened Obama’s election to the period during the Emancipation Proclamation, and several civil rights groups organized so-called “Emancipation Watch” gatherings to monitor election results.
The notion that this election is a symbol of racial redemption is particularly striking. African Americans have been virtually lockstep in their support for Illinois’ junior senator, after the Iowa primary proved that a black candidate could attract white votes.
Black elected officials who since opposed Obama faced intense public criticism. Constituent discontent even forced Rep. John Lewis (D‑Ga.) – a civil rights icon – to withdraw his support from primary candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton (D‑N.Y.) and throw his support to Obama.
This was a vivid example of how Obama’s electoral aspirations have interrupted the civil rights narrative that for so long has defined black America’s trajectory. Today, the African-American community seems to find more value in the racial symbolism of an Obama presidency than in adhering to previous allegiances.
Charles Johnson, author of the award-winning novel Middle Passage and professor of English at Washington University, writes that black Americans need another narrative. In The American Scholar magazine, Johnson argues in a recent cover story that “a new century calls for new stories grounded in the present, leaving behind the painful history of slavery and its consequences.”
That history is one of racial victimization that begins in slavery, continues through the Jim Crow and the Civil Rights eras, and persists into the 21st century. Johnson argues that this story no longer describes the lives of African Americans that increasingly are stories of success and accomplishment, perhaps best symbolized by Obama’s ascent.
Johnson makes a more sophisticated argument that government efforts to redress the wounds of slavery and Jim Crow are now antiquated. He writes, “It simply is no longer the case that the essence of black American life is racial victimization and disenfranchisement … a destiny based on color in which the meaning of one’s life is thing-hood, created even before one is born.”
Even as Obama reached new voters, anti-affirmative action referenda passed in Nebraska and barely lost in Colorado. Similar measures have passed in four other states.
That brings me to the contradictory feelings I have about Obama’s election. For some, his triumph will stand in lieu of continuing efforts to narrow the widening gap between white and black Americans in virtually every index of social well being. To put it simply: black America is not doing well.
Our peculiar political calculus prevented candidate Obama from candidly addressing issues of racial justice during the campaign. Any hint of racial grievance coming from a black candidate could have provoked a white electoral backlash, and the Obama team assiduously avoided that possibility.
But Obama is no longer just a symbol of black America’s racial aspirations. The African-American candidate may not have been free to speak about the incarceration epidemic among black youth, or the enormous collateral damage of the war on drugs, but President Obama must be held accountable for policies that exacerbate those problems.
The sheer novelty of his status as the first black president probably will give him a long political honeymoon in the African-American community. However, when those first arguments inevitably begin, this period of tear-stained joy will gain a glow of nostalgia.