America has a long way to go before we get to the "more perfect union" Obama promises. But the work has begun in earnest.
In his prophetic turn-of-the-century treatise The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois reflected on the experience of being black in America as a constant awareness that others view one as a problem–to be observed, analyzed and solved. For black Americans our very self is the object of the slavery question, the miscegenation threat, the Jim Crow solution, the Negro problem, the black family crisis, the welfare dilemma, the crime concern or the nation’s racial scar. It is difficult to live as the object of this amused contempt and pity.
When Barack Obama was elected as the first black president of the United States, African-Americans became the solution instead of the problem. For many black folks, Obama’s victory has momentarily healed the double consciousness that is an ordinary part of our lives. To be a citizen in a democracy is to be not only the ruled but also the ruler, to not only submit to law but to craft it, to not only die for your country but to live fully in it. In this moment, we are citizens.
We the people, who tilled the soil and cleared the forests and harvested the crops for no compensation. We the people, who endured the abortion of Reconstruction and carried the weight of Jim Crow. We the people, who swung from Southern trees and stood on the front lines of foreign wars. We the people, who taught our children to read even when the schools had no books. We the people, who worshiped a God of liberation even as we suffered oppression. We the people, who gave America back its highest ideals with our nonviolent struggle against injustice.
We the people are now Americans.
Obama concluded his acceptance speech by talking about a 106-year-old African-American woman named Ann Cooper who voted for him in Atlanta. He told us that the sweep of Mrs. Cooper’s life was an indication of the tremendous change our nation has witnessed.
Anna Julia Cooper happens to be the name of a black feminist foremother, born in 1858 during slavery, who became the fourth black woman in history to earn a doctoral degree. She died in 1964, the year of the Civil Rights Act. In her life, this Anna Cooper also saw tremendous change. Cooper famously wrote in her turn-of-the-twentieth-century treatise, A Voice From the South, that the full freedom and equality of black women was critical to American democracy because "Only the BLACK WOMAN can say ‘when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.’"
When Obama told the story of his Ann Cooper, I understood again why his victory means so much to me. Barack Obama has taken a seat at the table of power, and he has invited all of us to come along. He could not have won without us. African-Americans saved Obama’s candidacy in the South Carolina primary and delivered North Carolina and Virginia to him on Tuesday night. We are equal, not junior, partners in this historic victory. He has entered, and we have come along with him.
After decades of being ignored by white Democratic presidential candidates who wrote off the South as hopelessly red, black Americans below the Mason-Dixon line have been brought new vigor by Barack Obama’s candidacy. Obama did not take the black vote for granted. He fought hard to earn it. Urban radio became a nonstop source of election coverage and get-out-the-vote activism. Black college football games were transformed into voter registration drives. Church mothers pinned Obama buttons to their Sunday best suits. Hip-hop designers styled new Obama fashions and produced Obama-inspired music.
Obama also won with the largest share of the popular vote of any Democrat since LBJ; he earned a percentage of the white vote that rivaled Clinton and Carter; he earned more than two-thirds of the Latino vote. His victory is stunning in part because he has been a racially forthright Democratic candidate. His campaign did not have to spit on Sister Souljah or promise to end welfare. Instead, he launched his campaign in Illinois by invoking Lincoln, who despite his own racial bigotry, called on the nation to unify in the cause of defeating slavery. In Selma Obama defined himself as part of the Joshua generation, those who will help America cross into Martin Luther King Jr.’s mountaintop vision of the Promised Land. In Philadelphia he paused in the midst of a hard-fought primary to help us navigate the difficult terrain of America’s racial history and begin to build some common vocabulary for talking to one another across our differences.
Barack Obama’s presidency will not deal a death blow to racism. Racial inequality still affects the quality of the air we breathe, the quality of our health, the likelihood of being erroneously shot by police, the likelihood of being poor, of having little education and of being unemployed. Race is sticky and racism is real. Being black will still mean living poorer and dying younger.
Obama does not free us of these burdens, but he does offer a new possibility for America’s future. The Obama coalition is multiracial and intergenerational. It is led by women and by men. It stretches from North Carolina to New York, California to Colorado. The Obama coalition does not mean the end of racist attitudes or structural inequality, but it does mean that there are millions of Americans who have found common cause that moves beyond our old divisions and calls on new sensibilities. We have a long way to go before we get anywhere near that more perfect union that Obama imagined in Philadelphia, but the work has begun in earnest.