‘A dream deeply rooted in the American Dream’ comes true

Finally, it is morning in America.

A Columbia- and Harvard-educated biracial senator from Illinois is preparing to take the oath of office in the most celebrated changing of the guard in our history. He identifies as an African American, his wife is black and fine, his children are mocha-colored and adorable, and his sensibilities are undeniably progressive. He has accomplished something many Americans thought they would never live to see, and millions who’ve witnessed it have been moved to tears.

Yes, a 47-year-old African American will soon take the reins of the most powerful nation in the world, having beaten a badly splintered Republican ticket featuring a war hero and the most famous hockey mom in America. The Republicans pulled out all of the stops, even stealing Obama’s battle cry of  “Change,” battering the Democrat with every charge they could muster including the preposterous accusation of being a “socialist,” hoping to scare the voters. They did not succeed. While McCain slugged it out in the clinches, Obama played rope-a-dope and accentuated the positive for 21 months.

He was able to rise from relative obscurity to world icon because of his personal history and temperament. With family roots in Kenya, Ireland, Indonesia, Hawaii and Kansas — and Ivy League sensibilities tempered by community organizing in the political tumult that is Chicago — Barack Hussein Obama demonstrated that he is the very embodiment of the emerging multi-culti coalition.

What does his astonishing victory say about America in 2008?

Rejecting the ‘fight, fight, fight’ mentality
Let’s start with the obvious. With over 350 electoral votes and a clear popular majority, Obama’s victory means that the nation has rejected the 1980s Reagan-Bush laissez faire approach to business. It has rejected the Bush administration’s first-strike doctrine. It has rejected officially sanctioned lying. It has rejected the “fight, fight, fight” mentality. It has rejected the “team of mavericks” concept with its inherent contradictions. And, it has rejected the spectacle of a McCain-Palin administration wherein the vice president excites the conservative base while waiting to become president.

From a historical and cultural perspective, we lack the vocabulary to articulate precisely what it means to have a president whose DNA and personal experience is emblematic of a new century, and a newly emerging society. We have had similar transitions in our history before, but none so meaningful. Abraham Lincoln was the first “Western” president. William McKinley was the first president of the 20th century and the last president to serve in the Civil War. FDR was the first president to struggle with a major disability. JFK became the first Catholic president.

But Barack Obama is a feast of firsts: the first black president raised by a white family, who grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia, who was elected by a freshly minted demographic coalition of white, black, Latino, young and ethnically diverse voters. He is the first to successfully politicize The Rev.  Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous dream, the first to have good friends who are Muslims, the first undeniably liberal president with the support of conservatives like Christopher Buckley. The list is nearly endless.

A contagion of hope
To his credit, Obama did what he said he would do: generate a contagion of hope that spread across the worldwide web and into people’s hearts. For citizens of color — who did not initially support Obama until he won the Iowa primary — Obama’s election is a moment of profound transformation. Quite simply, it means that the final racial barrier has fallen at the national level and that while racial hatred will always be a problem, it is no longer the problem.

Observers like to claim that Obama transcends race, but he has been forced to overcome race-related doubts about his qualifications in this election. The Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy, for instance, made many African Americans sick to their stomachs. Not because of what the man said, because Wright’s sentiments have been repeated in many black churches, but because we recognized that Jeremiah Wright was being used to hijack the election and that white America’s fear of black radicalism was feeding the frenzy. McCain’s associations with shady characters — such as Charles Keating, who actually defrauded the government — never emerged as a campaign issue. Sarah Palin has long been associated with the Alaskan Independence Party, whose founder cursed the American flag. Yet somehow, these stories didn’t provoke the kind of outbursts from white Americans that marked the Rev. Wright story.

Through all of this dissembling and subterfuge, Obama remained coolly focused on his goal of uniting those who for too long have been divided.

The pop cultural grace note
And there is this pop cultural grace note: the quintessential chill orientation for which Obama is known represents the 21st century rebirth of the cool, a largely African invention called Itutu in ancient Nigeria. Itutu came to the United States in the stoic and steely attitude of black slaves and became a driving force for many blues-based genres like jazz, rock and hip-hop. You can see that music in Obama’s walk, you can hear it in his talk, and you can see it in his left-handed jump shot. It is the persona he uses to mask the enormous heart nurtured by his late grandmother, but no matter what he does, that heart shines through.

For many white Americans, Obama’s election is a triumphant acknowledgement that the old notions of race are quickly dying and that it is finally time to come together. Although some were uncomfortable with Obama’s lack of experience, they were able to discern his fundamental values through the prism of his leadership. Many middle-aged white Americans who supported Obama heard in his message the clarion call of a movement led by a more idealistic generation, and they decided to vote for him because he is black, because he is biracial, because he repudiates the politics of the past, because he asked for our help.

Not that all is well racially in this country. With the exception of Virginia and North Carolina, the American Confederacy is still intact south of the Mason Dixon line. Obama could not crack the states of the Deep South, even those with large African American populations. Paradoxically, these are perhaps the poorest states in the nation, the ones that repeatedly vote against their own interests, and the ones that had little reason to embrace McCain-Palin except out of racial and cultural spite.

A pragmatic streak
So, while hundreds of millions around the world are celebrating Obama’s victory, he has a pragmatic streak that compels him to keep working. He knows he cannot count on the absolute support of far too many of his fellow citizens. He understands that this nation faces the most severe challenges in our history and that he dare not fail. By now we are all familiar with those challenges. What we do not yet know is how Obama will approach them.

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s best selling book, “Team of Rivals,” documents Abraham Lincoln’s appointment of three of his most fierce competitors to his first presidential cabinet. I believe that Obama’s instincts are similar to Lincoln’s. I do not mean that he will lead from the center, because the times call for radical change. Instead, you can expect to see President Obama cajole the opposition into doing what is necessary to support the majority of Americans, not the elites. Like Lincoln, Obama’s ego is anything but fragile,  and he has the uncanny ability to challenge his opponents while appearing conciliatory. This may be among his greatest gifts: the courage to take a stand without being arrogant or doctrinaire.

Those who paved the way
Finally, it is worth remembering those who came before Obama and paved the way for this day. While much of America would like to write off unpopular figures like Jesse Jackson, it is a fact that without Jackson’s previous presidential bids, Obama’s candidacy would have been all but impossible. The man who cradled Dr. King’s shattered skull in his arms in 1968 could be seen openly weeping in Chicago at Obama’s postelection rally. Maybe that’s because Jesse Jackson believed just as passionately as Dr. King did in these words delivered at the 1963 March on Washington:

“And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

“One day” has now arrived.

Syl Jones is a Minnesota playwright and essayist.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Okpulot Taha on 11/05/2008 - 12:57 pm.

    America should be very cautious to not congratulate herself too quickly nor with smug arrogance.

    Our election of President Obama is not a solution, is not a step forward, is not change. This election is nothing more than appointing a new name to our American president. No matter the candidate, we have, so far, only changed the name of our president.

    President Obama, from this day forward, is now responsible to honor his promises to America, is accountable to our peoples and to our world. Eloquent rhetoric will solve no problem, will not produce betterment for our nation nor our world. We Americans are responsible to lend our support to President Obama while he keeps his word. We Americans are also responsible to impeach President Obama should he violate our trust. We Americans are both responsible for and accountable for our electing Barack Obama as our president. Should he keep his word, should he prove his worth, we Americans can take pride in our choice. Should he not keep his word, should he not prove his worth, we Americans can take pride in impeaching him.

    Our America is in dire straights. Our world is in dire straights. We Americans failed our country and failed our world by sitting idle while President Bush abused every founding principle of our country, while offending the Spirit of America. We Americans are accountable for George Bush and we are accountable for Barack Obama. This time, my personal expectation is Americans will stand up and accept full responsibility. This is a responsibility to support our newly elected president, and is a responsibility to impeach and remove our newly elected president should he fail us. My personal expectation is Americans will not sit idle, will not simply hope rather will stand up and work to solve our problems.

    This time, if our president proves to be a false promise, I will demand Americans stand up, impeach him then remove him from office rather than sit idle while he destroys our America. Never again should we allow a George Bush to disgrace our America, to shame our America.

    President Obama, I give you my word I will work hard, shoulder-to-shoulder with you, and President Obama I give you my word if you fail America I will do all within my power to remove you from office and cast you to the wayside.

    My adamant expectation is all Americans will adopt my firm but fair attitude. If not, I will be quick to cast you to the wayside and quick to constantly remind you of your being accountable.

    Mark my words Americans, I will hold you accountable.

    Okpulot Taha
    Choctaw Nation

  2. Submitted by Barry Wenhold on 11/05/2008 - 02:04 pm.

    I think Syl Jones has captured the real significance of this election.
    I intend to share this article, verbatim and with full credit to the author(s), with as many as care to read it.

    Okpulot Taha, your words, too, will be shared.

  3. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 11/08/2008 - 03:23 pm.

    So now it’s the day after and this nation rolls out of bed bleary-eyed from all-night celebrations; so pleased with themselves that they finally had the courage to judge a man, “not by the color of his skin but the content of his charactar”. It took long enough, but in the process assured the world we would soon be cleaning out the dead wood in the last administration; relegating it to the woodshed or to the nearest landfill. We can’t get this policy bimbo out of the White House soon enough.

    The world praises not us as a nation but Barack Obama as a learned and active leader for change.

    We have patted ourselves on the back so vigorously we may soon be known as the Nation of Broken Wrists – for using a joint rarely used lately, can be a painful experience in the aftermath.

    Expect some pain after the pleasure of the last week; and that pain may come sooner than we think.
    Obama announces his first choice, Rahm Emmanuel, friend and power trouble-shooter, a get-things-done kinda guy and fellow Chicago homeboy. Why should anybody worry? I still dream of hope and change, actuating some of the reforms to get us out of this past administration’s mess.

    And as an indulgent sidebar…I have even considered a few names for the new puppy in the White House. Why not just call him Hope?…even visualized a large gentle German Shepard (too bad he’s not allergy-free) lounging under the desk in the Oval office. Or as Obama and Michelle’s walking companion. Pick a non-allergic mini-breed for the girls…why not two new canines to water the rose garden and the carpets on occasion? Actually it takes very little to train a smart breed like a German Shepard. Just be patient and don’t give up on Hope.

    But when president-elect Obama picked as chief-of-staff, Rahm, the teflon man himself, I was not one to sing halliyulahs. This is the man who hates Palestinians to put it bluntly. This appointment put a shudder down my spine…even dulled the broken wrist.

    Now take a breather and check out Alex Cockburn over at Counterpunch interviews Nader and Nader writes a letter to Obama on the Axis of Logic website and over at the new, news media in D.C., read the three-part interview on realnews.com.

    Nader may not be recognized as valuable council by our president-elect but if nothing else, I ask you; beg you almost Obama…give Ralph your ear. Think of him as a surrogate uncle at least. He could be a more valuable voice than the questionable powerhouse chief advisor you appointed who comes dragging along some pretty ugly entrails behind him.

    I do believe, each man must judge for themselves and every dog should have his day…even that preemptive, fantasy dog called Hope.

    …”Here puppy, puppy; not on Foreign Minister
    (the never-will compromise hard nose one) Livni’s shoe, no, no!”…”Just have a seat madam Livni and not to worry,he doesn’t bite like Barney. He’s harmless…he’s just not totally trained but we have promised to give Hope a chance”

Leave a Reply