Even though everyone else has already shared their “Barack Obama moment,” and even though I’m weighing in a good eight days after the election, I’m going to share mine nevertheless. I have waited more than 40 years to tell this story, and I’m not going to be denied.
By now, eight days into it, you might be glazing over. But even McCain supporters will acknowledge that this election involved something more than selecting one candidate’s policies over the other’s. The normally restrained Condoleezza Rice practically gushed at the end of a recent press conference, stating how proud she was as an African American (hmm — would she serve in the Obama cabinet?). And copies of the election issue of the New York Times are already on the auction block.
The election is indeed a transformation, in several ways.
A new generation of blacks will no longer be able to say that there is an upper limit to their mobility and aspirations. Yes, some will still be held back by stereotypes and prejudice, but all will know that it is possible, in the real world as well as in the song, to overcome.
A mostly older generation of whites who are unable or unwilling to cope with people different from themselves now will be in a position where they either adapt to the new reality or are left behind.
And another segment of white liberals who have been arguing for this day for years, who have always said they would never have a problem with anyone because of the color of their skin, will now have a chance to demonstrate that belief at the highest level. When they see blacks in high places they will not immediately think of affirmative action, because they will know that no one cut Barack Obama a special break — Hillary Clinton saw to that. These white liberals will be able to move from talking the talk to walking the walk.
My Obama moment began with a walk on a hot summer evening in Chicago in 1968. As a summer reporter for Time magazine, I had taken a taxi 50 blocks into Chicago’s west side to interview the organizers of a black youth group aimed at harnessing the angry energy that had built up since the assassination of Martin Luther King a few months earlier. But the interview didn’t go well: I was accused of being part of a white media that was profiting from the misfortunes of the ghetto. Physical threats were issued and I was ordered to leave. No argument, I said, I will call a cab.
A cab? Back then and probably now, no cabs ventured into the heart of that perceived darkness. So I began a 50-block, five-mile walk back to Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago. The first mile or so I was eyes straight ahead, fearful of any potential cross look. Eventually I began to relax, and noticed that the people were on their stoops and front porches, relaxing after a hard day and trying to catch a cool breeze. Soon I began to hear greetings, and I began to return them. By the end of five miles I realized, as Barack would have said, we were not black Americans or white Americans, we were just Americans trying to beat the heat on a sweltering summer day.
The 2008 election is a tribute to millions of others who have paved the way for Obama. The decent people of Chicago who went about their business while the media put its spotlight on the militants and disaffected should be counted.
So should the handful of blacks who matriculated with me at Princeton in 1965. Of more than 800 entering freshmen, 16 were black, less than 2 percent. Being a college student in the late 1960s was a license to act out in any number of ways. My black classmates helped lead Princeton through a sometimes painful but ultimately positive transformation.
And they also quietly established their own personal competencies. The group from the Class of 1969 turned into four medical doctors, two PhDs, four or five recipients of masters degrees, and three lawyers.
As I was pondering my Obama moment the day after the election, I got an E-mail from our former high school intern, Tanya Chanda, who is now a freshman at George Washington University:
“Last night I probably had one of the most surreal experiences of my life. When Barack Obama was projected as the 44th President of the United States, all 1,020 kids in my dorm ‘swarmed’ the White House in a renewed energy that the Obama campaign so long spoke of. In the pouring rain and the cold, we stood outside, anticipating the coming of ‘change’ that this country so desperately needs.
“Last night I realized that American politics has truly become ‘participatory’ as a result of Barack Obama. Our votes, donations and time all meant something in an election whose turnout was monumental, and results, historic. Standing in front of the White House till 1 a.m. last night, I realized the enormity of our country’s decision.
“Although a lot lies ahead in the next four years, I am proud to say that I was able to experience a moment that is so pivotal in our history, and that I will have the opportunity to see the change up front as my new neighbor moves in on the 20th of January.”
Forty years ago we thought our moment was pivotal, as well. For Tanya’s sake, and the country’s, I hope the new Obama moment results in change that is more widespread and longer lasting.