I’m still having difficulty processing it all. My words fail me in describing this swelling, swirling sensation that encompasses me. Thoughts whirl in my head, cavorting with hope and possibilities they dared not embrace prior to this day. I let them dance.
Shortly after 11 p.m., on Nov. 4, 2008, in our family room, I sit transfixed, along with my wife and children, an arc of anxiety, hanging on every word and image relayed by the big screen. My youngest two children, girls, ages 7 and 8, have been summoned from their play elsewhere in the house by one of their brothers. While they don’t grasp the magnitude of the events, they are perceptive enough to take their cues from the rest of us. “Obama,” my 7-year-old says, reading the name off the screen as she points animatedly, her inflection signifying a good thing. She’s long since made the connection between the blue and white sign in our yard, the face and name recognizable from TV, and furtive glances at daddy’s laptop, upon which I’ve spent feverish weeks refreshing dozens of news sites and blogs.
Despite our anxious vigil, we actually got the news late, inasmuch as these things are reckoned in the digital age. It was not quite a Juneteenth moment for the Jennings family; this lag was vastly unlike that experienced by those African-American ancestors in post-bellum Texas, from whom the Good News of emancipation was withheld by slave owners until Union soldiers brought word of freedom nearly three years later. This delay was of our own devising. We froze the DVR on CNN, seizing upon a teachable moment, and explained to the kids an aspect of the electoral process; but more important, we provided context for the younger ones, attempting to add depth and comprehension to the history unfolding before them.
The impromptu lesson was interrupted by yet more technology, as cell phones rang and chirped with tidings. My oldest daughter and I received text messages while I could hear my mother-in-law, talking on my wife’s cell, from across the room, “HE WONNNNN!!!!!!”
I called my mom. In our voices was more relief than ebullience, but the sentiments were nonetheless the same. I thanked her for being hopeful enough to bring me into this world in 1967, an act of no little faith.
Tears welled up in my eyes. My wife’s eyes, too, were streaming, as we looked at our kids in that moment.
We fast forwarded the TV to the announcement that U.S. Sen. Barack Obama had been declared the winner of the election. My oldest son froze the screen again and took a picture of it on his cell phone. Then, as a family, we stood in a circle in the middle of the room and prayed. We asked God to keep the president-elect and his family within His circle of protection, to give him the strength, wisdom and courage he will need to lead. We thanked Him that all of the sacrifices made down throughout history were not in vain, and we asked that He would stay the hands of any of those who would use this moment for ill.
Then we watched the acceptance speech. On the Monday night before the election, I drove my oldest child, a junior in high school and wise beyond her years, to yet another of her extracurricular activities. En route to the student ambassador program, where she attends weekly workshops with counselors and other students to build programs to educate her peers about teen pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, we listened to NPR, talked, and made the most of the 45-minute sojourn.
She was a bit down, reflecting on her hectic workload, ruing that it might result in a C in one of her AP or Honors classes. She spoke of pressures at school, including the patronization and underestimation she and the few other black kids in her classes often detected from their teachers. I couldn’t help but smile, remembering my own high school years, as she talked about taking delight in those teachers’ dissonance when she provided answers that defied their expectations.
I explained to my daughter that the load she was carrying was extraordinary, and that the biggest offender, band competitions, which consume up to 14 hours on Saturdays, would be over soon. The result, I said, would be as if she had been running and jumping with a weighted jacket. Once removed, she would run faster and soar higher, strengthened by the process. From there I pivoted to a broader discussion, tying the analogy back to how my wife and I were raised, and how we’ve, in turn, raised our children: You will have to work twice as hard to get half as much.
For generations, that saying was axiomatic within the black community, a necessary fortification passed down to aid a people facing oppositional forces every bit as real and pervasive as gravity. My daughter nodded her assent, having heard this many times before, quickly perceiving the parallel, and noting the corollary: If you work twice as hard and temper your expectations, whenever a fair opportunity is presented to you, you will soar.
“Soaring,” then, best describes my spirits as I reflect upon that November night in which many divergent groups will rightly find their own victories and inspiration amid the symbolism of Obama’s triumph. Progressives, centrists, pragmatists, idealists, religious folks, secularists, doves, trade unionists, minorities, multi-racials, post-racials and innumerable others have cause for celebration. Americans have great cause for celebration, as does the world.
As for black folks, in the coming days we shall no doubt see the importance of the election both understated and overstated. To be clear, an Obama presidency does not signify that all is well for African-Americans. It doesn’t mean that we, as a people, have made it and will no longer face myriad and serious challenges that are the direct results of historical and contemporary racism and oppression. Nor will we cease being affected by the collateral damage of economic deprivation. Neither, still, will the sight of a “brother” in the White House, “role model in chief,” if you will, be enough catalyst, by itself, to undo and reverse the many problems purely of our own devising.
As we will no doubt commemorate this event, we must be careful not to forget that it took an almost incomprehensible level of incompetence on the part of the current administration and Republican opposition, the near-complete collapse of the American economy, and the most flawless combination of political strategy, fundraising, organization, execution and discipline ever seen in a presidential campaign for Obama to prevail.
Despite such a confluence of events, many reporters over the last few weeks related anecdotes of jobless and economically depressed white people who told them, “I guess I’ll be voting for the ni**er.” The intensity of the death threats that the man and his family have received, the number of people all too ready to believe any innuendo and slander about him, the high proportion of Americans all too eager to overlook his qualifications and qualities because of his “otherness”: Those things remind us of how much remains the same in this country. Despite all that, the fact that he prevailed is testament that the country has changed enough.