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.’"