More than half a century ago, Langston Hughes captured the debilitating divide in the destinies of white and black children in his poem “Children’s Rhymes”: “By what sends / the white kids / I ain’t sent: / I know I can’t / be PresidentBy what sends / the white kids / I ain’t sent: / I know I can’t / be President.” Forty-six years after Hughes, rapper Tupac echoed that declaration: “And though it seems heaven sent / We ain’t ready to have a black president.” Today, little more than a decade after Tupac’s lament, we are ready for a black president, and the grief of dreams deferred is lifted.
By any measure, this is a monumental day in our nation’s history. African Americans are rightly proud. The brutal facts of black existence -- slavery, segregation and the stunting of social and political ambition -- have dashed the hopes of black progress time and again. The election of Barack Obama symbolizes the resurrection of hope and the restoration of belief in a country that has often failed to treat its black citizens as kin. For millions of blacks abandoned to social neglect and cultural isolation, Obama’s words and vision have built a bridge back into the American family.
Obama’s historic win is the triumphant closing of a circle of possibility begun when former slaves boldly imagined that one of their offspring would one day lead the nation that enslaved their ancestors. In 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. met a bullet in resistance to his dream of equality; 40 years later, Americans cast their ballots to make Obama president. The distance from King’s assassination to Obama’s inauguration is a quantum leap of racial progress whose timeline neither cynics nor boosters could predict.
Today is a benchmark that helps to fulfill -- and rescue -- America’s democratic reputation. The Oval Office is the ultimate symbol of national access to power. If the levers of influence are weighted with bias or unjust privilege, they swing away from the promise of democracy, which is America’s greatest legacy. Today, Americans of all stripes can be proud that the ideals of the founders, though trumped over the centuries by grievous instances of racism and sexism, have finally found us.
Obama, something of a re-founding father, now joins the pantheon of white men who have cast a bright light or negative shadow over the nation’s political landscape. His interpretation of America’s ideals and destiny will enliven the creeds that have shaped the nation’s self-image.
Contrary to many critics, his election does not, nor should it, herald a post-racial future. But it may help usher in a post-racist future. A post-racial outlook seeks to delete crucial strands of our identity; a post-racist outlook seeks to delete oppression that rests on hate and fear, that exploits cultural and political vulnerability. Obama need not cease being a black man to effectively govern, but America must overcome its brutal racist past to permit his gifts, and those of other blacks, to shine.
Our belief in Obama must become contagious; it must spread and become a belief in other blacks who have been quarantined in racial stereotype. Regarding Obama as an exceptional black man -- when he is in fact an exceptional American -- hampers our whole nation’s desire to clear the path to success for more like him. Obama is not the first black American capable of being president; he’s the first black American who got the chance to prove it.
We should not be seduced by the notion that Obama’s presidency signals the end of racism, the civil rights movement, the struggle for black equality or the careers of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. A President Obama would not have come to be without the groundbreaking efforts of Shirley Chisholm, and especially Jackson. Obama is able to be cool and calm because leaders like Sharpton, at least in the past, got angry.
Obama is likewise the beneficiary of Frederick Douglass’ eloquence and sense of struggle, Booker T. Washington’s self-reliant uplift, W.E.B. Du Bois’ brilliant unmasking of racial hierarchy, Mary McLeod Bethune’s imperishable desire for education, Ella Baker’s tactical and strategic energy, Malcolm X’s will to literary reinvention and Martin Luther King Jr.'s soaring oratory and ultimate sacrifice.
Obama is the latest link in the chain of progress they all forged in the struggle to improve the U.S. by improving the condition of black folk. Obama will move in exactly the opposite direction: As president, he will improve the condition of black folk because he improves the nation. That is a sign of his calling as a national leader, not a black leader. Or, in the adjectival way we measure racial progress, Obama is not a black president, but a president who’s black.
As a black man, I feel indescribable elation and pride to be an American on this day. Black folk have told our children a useful lie in the past: They could be anything their minds and talents permitted them to be, even president. Now we can stop lying and start working to make sure that Obama is only the first of many more -- presidents, astronauts, governors, senators, theoretical physicists, baseball commissioners, NASCAR drivers, Olympic swimmers or whatever other pursuit we can dare to imagine.
One of the greatest effects of Obama’s becoming the most powerful man in the world is the incalculable psychic boost it gives young black egos that take shape in the glare of TV screens that project his face and words around the globe. But the real miracle may be that Obama’s presidency persuades Americans to take for granted that a talented black person, if trusted, can do a great deal of good for the country. Even before he swears his oath of office, Obama has served the nation in heroic fashion.
Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of sociology at Georgetown University, is the author of many books, including “April 4 1968: Martin Luther King, Jr’s Death and How It Changed America,” “Holler If You Hear Me,” “Is Bill Cosby Right?” and “I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King Jr.”