Sometimes, history comes full circle.
On Tuesday, Hannah Jane Hurdle-Toomey, one of the last living children of an African-American slave, will be watching intently on TV as an African-American family takes up residence in the White House, a national monument built by slaves.
"At last, the time has come," said the 76-year-old retired Oregon pastor whose father, Andrew Jackson Hurdle, was born into slavery in North Carolina in 1845. "This at least will give our young African-American children hope that they, too, can achieve. We had just about collectively given up."
Sometimes, history puts things right.
On the front lawn of the South Carolina state Capitol, hard by the Confederate flag waving in the breeze and next to the monument honoring Confederate soldiers, stands a forbidding statue of one of America's most notorious white supremacists.
"We have done our level best. We have scratched our heads to find out how we could eliminate the last one of them, and we would have done it if we could," declared Benjamin Tillman, a South Carolina governor and senator, speaking of black Americans on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1900. "We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it. We of the South have never recognized the right of the Negro to govern white men, and we never will."
On Tuesday, when the first black man in American history recites the presidential oath of office, Benjamin Tillman officially becomes moot.
For a nation sucker-punched by an economic crisis, a world rocked back on its heels by terrorism and a planet gasping for relief from a steadily warming climate, the inauguration of President Barack Hussein Obama offers a breathtaking moment of audacious hope.
Unemployed Americans with evaporated medical insurance are hoping Obama's promised health reforms come through before they get sick. Vulnerable Americans living along the nation's coasts are hoping Obama does something about climate change before the seas rise any higher. War-weary Americans with sons and daughters in the U.S. armed forces are hoping Obama can bring the precarious interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan to a secure conclusion. Black Americans still victimized by systemic racial inequalities are hoping that Obama will address the nation's unfinished business of equal opportunity.
And every American who is hoping to send a child to college, care for an elderly parent or simply retire without having to take a full-time job as a Wal-Mart greeter is praying that Obama can chart a way out of the nation's deepening financial crisis.
"I didn't vote for Obama," said a woman hurrying out of an unemployment office in downtown Columbia, "but if he can create some jobs down here, a lot of us will be willing to change our minds."
The nation's 44th president will scarcely resemble all the Establishment white men who came before him. In fact, even as the Obamas finally integrate 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. after more than 200 years, outgoing President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, will be heading back to Texas to a newly-purchased home in an exclusive, 82-percent-white Dallas neighborhood where, until just a few years ago, home sellers routinely attached "racial covenants" to their property deeds to prevent blacks from buying in.
But President Obama, the son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas, will look very much like the new, multiracial, multicultural America he will begin to lead—a nation that, by the time Obama's two young daughters reach middle age, will no longer have a majority white population.
Yet not only Democrats or liberals or African-Americans will be rejoicing on Inauguration Day. Polls show that more than three-fourths of Americans—many of them Republican and conservative and white—are pulling for Obama in these perilous times, far more than the 53 percent of the electorate that voted for him.
"You'd have to be irrational not to want the new president to succeed," Newt Gingrich, one of the Republican Party's ideological standard-bearers, recently told The New York Times.
There is another national yearning out there as well, one as old as America's founding sin of slavery—the hope that, 146 years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and nearly 46 years after Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of his evocative dream, Obama's presidency might finally salve the wounds of America's enduring struggles over race.
Today, of course, all Americans have the right to vote, or live where they choose, or eat where they want.
The nation can look back at the grainy newsreels of little black girls being escorted by federal marshals into public schools; or the faded photographs of red-faced sheriffs unleashing vicious dogs on peaceful protesters; or the museum displays of "Whites Only" signs posted above water fountains and restrooms, and take comfort in the notion that such Old South anachronisms are locked away in America's shameful Jim Crow past.
What's more, liberated from the rigid categories of "black" or "white," 2 percent of Americans now identify themselves to census-takers as members of two or more races—like Obama, the progeny of interracial unions that not so long ago triggered arrests and even public lynchings.
"We're very excited about the potential for Barack Obama to ignite a very productive discussion about race and culture," said Louie Gong, president of the MAVIN Foundation, an interest group for people of mixed racial heritage. "For the first time, people who aren't multiracial and who have never been concerned with racial issues are really thinking about what it means to be mixed."
But all of that substantial progress only casts into sharper relief how much remains to be done in a nation where some experts say it will take another 500 years for African-Americans to bridge the income gap with whites, where Hispanic immigrants are vilified by TV pundits denouncing them as vectors for leprosy, where the party of Lincoln does not have a single African-American among its 219 senators and representatives in Washington and where many inner-city schools remain as racially segregated—and educationally deficient—as they were half a century ago.
"The reality is that, for African-Americans, we have lost all the progress we had made since the 1960s," said Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California at Los Angeles and a leading expert on school desegregation. "For whites, it is a lost opportunity to prepare" for the nation's multiethnic future.
Contrary to the fondest hopes of liberal Americans—and the insistent declarations of conservatives—America is decidedly not yet "post-racial."
Race, particularly the historic divide between blacks and whites, is still the abiding subtext of many of our national conversations.
"On the day after Obama's election, I went to the post office, and the postman couldn't find anything to call me but 'girl,' " said Hurdle-Toomey, whose father, the former slave, died three years after she was born in 1932. "I went to the gym to work out, and a woman asked me if I would do her laundry. You would think there was a committee set up to remind me I am just one generation away from slavery."
Obama never campaigned to become the nation's first black president. He wants instead to be seen as the first president who happens to be black. And black political leaders are acutely sensitive to the distinction, mindful that a successful president must govern from the center and not be seen as beholden to any particular interest group.
"I don't think we are going to be walking up to him and saying 'Brother President,' " Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a leader of the Congressional Black Caucus, told a forum at Williams College in November. "He's not the Black Caucus president. He is the president of America. He's the leader of all Americans."
Others, however, emphasize that they will be looking to the new president and his Justice Department to focus on issues of justice and equality.
"Although Obama's candidacy has fantastically and forever shattered the shackles in the American psyche that a black person can't make it in America, it says nothing—yet—about what blacks as a people can achieve," said Rev. Al Sharpton. "Until we have reached that tipping point where race does not negatively affect millions of people of color—as opposed to just one—there is still much more work for me and other civil rights leaders to do."
Lonnie Randolph Jr., the president of the South Carolina chapter of the NAACP, is similarly wary. He has been struggling for years to force state officials to repair scores of rural schools —attended mostly by impoverished black students — where the roofs leak, the bathrooms are filled with sewage and there is no working heat or air conditioning.
"The inauguration is not going to solve the problem in our schools," Randolph said. "Ceremonially it's a nice event. But one out of 44 presidents and we are supposed to be happy? This is just a very small step."