12/06/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Long Exhale

When I went to bed last night, I was weeping; when I woke up in the middle of the night, I was still weeping. And when I opened my eyes this morning, with my one year old son sleeping peacefully in between my wife and me, I was still weeping. And, trust me, I don't weep on a dime.

The tears running down my face were of something so much more than happiness, so much more than simple relief. They were an exhalation.

Obama's election on Tuesday allows us to breathe again. It allows us to envisage possibilities and dreams that came perilously close to being extinguished. It allows us to imagine a better, fairer world, for our children and then their children and grandchildren beyond them. It is, quite simply, a transformative event, one that takes us through a wormhole and into a new cultural space that, according to the regular laws of politics, we had no reason to believe we could reach in our lifetimes.

Over a century ago, my great-grandparents arrived at New York's Ellis Island, after a journey to a land far removed from the pogroms of Tsarist Russia. They would have stood on the decks of their boats and watched as the Statue of Liberty hove into view. Had they been able to read English, they would have seen Emma Lazarus's words hued into the base of Lady Liberty. "Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to be free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore." They would have stood up a little straighter and, in Yiddish, uttered words of wonder at the mighty New World awaiting them. When they became citizens, they voted -- first the men, then, when women were enfranchised, my great-grandmothers too -- that simple act of participating in who governed them marking them out as residents in a land of limitless possibility.

For my great-grandparents, and tens of millions like them, America was so much more than simply a country. It was a breathtakingly audacious concept. Corny though it often sounds today, the American Dream was, for them, a metaphysical presence, a journey of wonder, a space for reinventing and reimagining human possibilities.

Of course, reality was never as smooth as the Dream itself. Most obviously, slavery and the segregated, unequal legacy it left in its wake were glaring limits to the Dream's universality. So too, the economic exploitation of America's poor has also, over the centuries, been an extraordinary obstacle to the Dream's realization.

For all the flaws, though, for many hundreds of millions, both in America and overseas, the words "American Dream" remained a symbol, an aspirational phrase representing hope, progress, and possibility.

Over the last eight years, that Dream has been largely shattered. Under Bush, America came to be seen as an ugly imperium; a country concerned only with material wealth; a place of growing religious extremism and military hubris. We were a country with our collective head in the sand, resentful of the opinions of others and either unwilling or unable to navigate the complex cultural currents of the age. We were governed by people who defended torture, who adopted slash-and-burn policies on issues ranging from the environment to healthcare, from war to international relations. Were we not so powerful we would have been, simply, a laughing stock; that we were so powerful made us, instead, the focal point for growing international revulsion.

When I would visit friends and relatives overseas during these years, I would struggle mightily to defend America, which has always been for me the one place on earth I most care about and love. We aren't the venal, dumb country you think we are, I would argue. We're so much better than that. Our ideals are still intact, they've just been temporarily skewed by Bush. And, I would continue, you can't blame us entirely for Bush. After all, he wasn't the majority's choice for president in 2000; and he was re-elected in 2004 during a moment at which the country was still reeling from 9/11. Dig below the surface, and you'll find we're still that fine country Emma Lazarus eulogized.

Over the past months, as the presidential election campaign dominated public discourse, that notion came under intense attack. Bereft of fresh ideas, the Republican Party tried every dirty trick, every smear in the book to maintain its hold on power. Obama was a terrorist, a Muslim, a socialist, a communist, a radical, an atheist, an elitist. He was, also, they kept implicitly reminding southern voters, in particular, Black. They never exactly came out and said it; they just kept calling him "un-American," kept asking America "who Obama is?" As I mentioned in my pre-election article, one southern politician even called him "uppity" -- and then denied that that had a racial connotation.

As the economy tanked, the attacks grew uglier. Fight the election on the issues, Republican strategists knew, and they'd lose. But remind audiences often enough about the color of Obama's skin, the religious affiliations of his father's ancestors, and they thought they could maintain their hold on power. For a while there, it looked like they would succeed. And had they gotten a majority vote that way, I honestly don't believe the American Dream as a concept could have survived. That most precious, and fragile, set of human aspirations would, quite simply, have bitten the dust and become a historical curiosity.

Over the past months, that fear was everywhere. Anyone with a sense of history, both in the U.S. and abroad, could feel it. That's why millions of people who had never taken part in politics before got involved. That's why in the weeks leading up to the vote hundreds of thousands of people, young and old, black and brown and white, rich and poor, flocked to Obama offices around the country to phone bank, to leaflet, to pound the sidewalks drumming up support for the Illinois senator. We knew that if we didn't, if we sat back and did nothing and watched McCain and Palin ride to power using slander and innuendo, stoking the forces of bigotry and fear, we would have to live with the consequences for the rest of our lives.

I didn't want to live in a country where the Ohioan man who answered the phone when I called to canvass a few days ago and told me he "wasn't going to vote for that nigger" or the lady who screamed "it's called the White House" before slamming down the phone were part of the political majority. No, I wanted to live in a country where every human was valued, where Dreams could again be dreamt.

On Tuesday, Americans decisively rejected politics based around hate and nativism. After eight years of Bush and Cheney stomping on the constitution, stomping on all the notions embodied in Emma Lazarus's poem, America ended up electing Barack Obama as the country's forty fourth president. It is, quite simply, a moment of utterly improbable, instantaneous transformation.

Sixteen years ago, Maya Angelou read a poem at Bill Clinton's inauguration. Now, in 2008, I am reminded of a famous Langston Hughes poem from 1938. O, let America be America again/ The land that never has been yet/ And yet must be/ the land where every man is free. The land that's mine/ the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME/ Who made America, Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain, Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain, Must bring back our mighty dream again.