The election of Barack Obama last week proved Alexis de Tocqueville's claim that democracies have a unique ability to correct themselves. But the returns also returned a more profound and philosophical truth-- the truth that the self is a layered entity; the truth that there can be reverberations in the penetralia of our hearts that are beyond our ability to grasp or modulate.
On Monday, African Americans could hardly let themselves think about an Obama victory. It was just too important. When word flashed across screen that Senator Obama was now president-elect, it was too much for many people to process. In Grant Park the mighty Oprah Winfrey was awash in tears. Her body was slack and her head pressed on the shoulder of a stranger standing in front of her. Judging from the visages of Congressman John Lewis and Jesse Jackson, you might have thought that someone died in their families. Rev. Jackson was seeping tears. His chin was quivering. Now and then he would lift an index finger to his lips as though he were in a hypnotic trance. While being interviewed on MSNBC, Representative Lewis's face was puffy from weeping. In a muffled and uncharacteristically uninflected voice, the man with the plate in his head from a beating he absorbed during the civil rights movement mumbled that he never expected this in his lifetime. In the end, he looked down, slowly shook his bald pate, and sighed that he just didn't have words to express what was going on inside of him. So many events in life don't live up to the hype and are anti-climactic. The effulgent comet of Tuesday night was just the opposite.
As a child growing up in the fifties and sixties I was on the sidelines and then in the fray of many heady discussions about the civil rights movement. The trump question was always, "Well...could you see a black person as president?"-- as if to say, that only when we the people could elect a black head of state could we really say that the poison of slavery had coursed through our system. In his famous "Changes," Tupac Shakur rapped, "And although it seems heaven sent/ We ain't ready to see a black President."
Correction Mr. Shakur. Oh yes we are. Decades ago, in perhaps his only political offering, Sam Cooke crooned the promise, "A change is gonna come." And has it ever.
On the morning after the election I took half an hour to listen to the waves of history lap against my college student's shores. They were mostly pale and drained - a few McCain supporters were downcast. I hectored them, "Come on, speak up. Don't sit there dumbfounded. Tell me how it feels to be involved in a once in 10 lifetimes historical event?" One student worried that this spirit of unity might be squandered much as the fellow feeling after 9-11. Another hinted that as soon as he is inaugurated, President Obama should tap the feeling of hope and unity with the immediate institution of new national service programs that would make it easier than ever for people to get involved. A sagacious suggestion, but I had not yet come down to the earth of pondering practical issues.
I was thinking about something else that seemed too corny to share. I was imagining that maybe now Americans of every hue might think and call upon one another in those terms of endearment that have long resonated in the black community, those sweet terms of address that amongst African-Americans have echoed across the chasms of class and opinion, terms that whites have envied but never dared to use-- the terms brother and sister.