Rebecca Solnit is the author of Hope in the Dark. Her next book about the extraordinary communities that arise in disaster will be out just in time for the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. This essay originally was published on TomDispatch.
Citizenship is a passionate joy at times, and this is one of those times. You can feel it. Tuesday the world changed. It was a great day. Monday it rained hard for the first time this season and on election day, everything in San Francisco was washed clean. I went on a long run past several polling places up in the hills around my home and saw lines of working people waiting to vote and contented-looking citizens walking around with their “I Voted” stickers in the sun and mud.
People have again found one of their–our–most buried and powerful desires: to make a better world together. I ran across an online collection of photographs of people crying in public, so moved by what is happening in this country, and I cried a little myself last weekend and choked up again when my local paper ran a story on a woman who’d crossed the country forty years ago for Martin Luther King’s funeral and left her polling place Tuesday singing hallelujah, amazed like so many older people that she’d lived to see the day.
You can argue against Barack Obama. I would myself, on the grounds that electoral politics are inherently flawed, corrosive, disempowering. My leftist friends, already cranky about him, warn me that I will be disappointed, but I’m not sure I will, because my expectations are realistic. I love his style, but he’s not my messiah.
Who he is is so much better than we had any right to expect in a country left to the jackals for so long, even if he’s just a pretty gifted liberal Democrat with an uncanny ability to see beyond the binaries and describe what might lie there.
What he is, in all his hyphenated hybridity, is a sign of a new world being born–not, certainly, the “another world is possible” of the anti-globalization movement, but another world of mingling and crossing borders, of making new ethnicities out of love across old divides. He is a living invitation to come in from the cold for a lot of those who have been left out for decades, for centuries.
He’s my age exactly, born that summer the Berlin Wall went up, and I recognize him, a man from the in-between. And I recognize my country’s ability to surprise itself and the world as well by being great, just when our monstrousness seemed utterly inescapable.
His day picks up from many that have come before. It’s the first great lurch forward for racial justice since the 1960s, that era of the civil rights movement. But it pick ups as well from the 1860s, from the unfinished promise of Abraham Lincoln–the promise over which a great and bloody Civil War was, in part, fought–to undo what that great president called the “original sin” of our country that goes back three centuries and more: race-based slavery.
Obama does not cancel out or heal the legacies of racism, but in becoming the most powerful man in the world he signifies that the game has indeed changed, not just ground to a halt partway to justice and equality. The inner-city kids I see in my neighborhood and the murderous racists I’ve encountered recently in New Orleans are both going to think about their place in the world and their rights differently from this day forward. And that matters immensely, whatever the man being voted into power today does, or does not, achieve.