With all of the election fever and the pace of 24 hour news, we often lose the ability to sit back and reflect. Amidst all of the speculation of Hillary Clinton’s next move, who will be the Vice President and the punditry examining electoral maps for the general election and the negative prognostications coming from the parsing of polls done in the heat and passion of the Democratic primary and its immediate (24-48 hour) aftermath history was made. Not just political history but cultural history and world history. I was fortunate enough to be in Washington DC the evening of the Potomac primaries- a significant evening for Mr. Obama and I was in Washington DC again when Mr. Obama clinched the nomination of his party. The energy in the nation’s capitol was palpable.
Senator Obama becoming the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party is a moment worthy of reflection- it is indeed a profound moment.
Barack Obama walked onto a stage in Minnesota on Tuesday night and stepped into the pages of American history and said “Tonight we mark the end of one historic journey with the beginning of another”, he said, “a journey that will bring a new and better day to America.
“Tonight, I can stand before you and say that I will be the Democratic nominee for president of the United States.”
Now, put this moment into the context of the broad sweep of the American story, where race has always been one of the central factors.
Nearly 400 years ago, a human cargo of men and women from what is now the African nation of Angola were brought in chains from an English ship to the colony of Jamestown on the Virginia coast.
In the centuries that followed, the uncompensated labour of hundreds of thousands of slaves built up America’s wealth, as well as creating vast fortunes for English, French and Dutch slave traders.
The white stone US Capitol building, a national symbol, was built in part by slave labour.
Later, the US fought the most bitter, bloody and most destructive war in its history in order to preserve the Union and eradicate the evil of slavery.
But the decades that followed President Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation of the slaves were harsh and full of repression, racism and violence.
The civil rights movement that began in the 1950s wrote one of the greatest hapters in the American story.
And now this: A black man is the nominee of a major American party to lead its battle for the White House.
It will force a lot of people here and across the globe to reassess their idea of America.
But still it is larger than all of that. On Tuesday evening Senator Barack Obama became the first man of African descent in any Western nation to entertain the possibility of presiding over its government-including Australia, Canada, and any European nation- and the world is taking notice.
Across the globe, pundits and politicians of all stripes competed for hyperbole on Wednesday to applaud Senator Barack Obama’s claim of victory in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, almost as if he had already been elected to the White House.
His triumph in the primaries, many said, signaled the defeat of racism, and if Senator Obama became president, his election would presage a departure from what outsiders have broadly depicted as the go-it-alone belligerence of the Bush era.
That anticipatory exuberance cut across party lines. Just in France, Ségolène Royal, President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Socialist rival in last year’s French presidential election, said in a telephone interview that Mr. Obama “embodies the America of today and tomorrow.”
Equally enthusiastically, Patrick Devedjian, the head of President Sarkozy’s center-right political party, called Mr. Obama’s candidacy ‘’a very beautiful image of America, the image of a candidate who transcends race and got to where he is because of merit alone.” And Bertrand Delanoë, the mayor of Paris, declared: “His candidacy carries an enormous hope for his country and for peace in the world.”
The banner headline across The Kenya Times on Wednesday seemed to say it all, “Obama makes history, beats odds.”
A day after Senator Barack Obama secured the Democratic presidential nomination, villagers in his father’s hometown shouted traditional songs and praised God for the outsized success of a “village son.”
Here in the capital, office workers turned their attentions to the radio and television stations that constantly replayed Mr. Obama’s victory speech. Unemployed men in the slums toasted the moment with a popular brand of beer, Senator Keg lager, that Kenyans have renamed “Obama.”
Beneath the sense of joy was cautious optimism. Despite the milestone reached by Mr. Obama, whose father was Kenyan, many Kenyans say that Republicans in the United States remain powerful, well financed and difficult to beat and that Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, has the inexorable advantage of being a white candidate in a largely white nation.
“It’s still too early to celebrate,” Joyce Nkuubi, 45, a florist, said. “He has some more work to do if he’s to defeat McCain.”
The day was certainly not as jubilant as it was when Mr. Obama visited Kenya in 2006 in an orchestrated four-country African tour to raise awareness of AIDS and connect with his roots. Thousands of people lined the streets of Nairobi to catch a glimpse of him, waiting hours in the sun.
But in the west, in Nyangoma-Kogelo, a collection of tin-roofed shacks and rutted dirt roads with little electricity or running water, a celebration occurred without him. Scores of villagers flocked to the home of Sarah Obama, his step-grandmother, to dance in the family compound and pray.
“Everybody there is full of excitement,” Barack Karama, a journalist in western Kenya, said. “There are many journalists, as well as people who are streaming in and out to offer congratulatory messages to the grandmother.”
Ms. Obama said she had predicted the victory, Mr. Karama said.
Many residents of Nyangoma-Kogelo are subsistence farmers, and Mr. Obama has come to represent pride and hope for them.
Because of his celebrity, the village has become something of a focal point, with journalists of many stripes putting up at a nearby port, Kisumu.
“I have spent the whole day here in Kisumu talking with journalists,” said Said Obama, an uncle of the senator.
Many Kenyans seemed to have few expectations that Mr. Obama, if elected president, would suddenly steer American policies to their advantage. But they saw significant, if sometimes indirect benefits.
“Since Obama has his roots in Kenya, it is obvious that Kenya and Africa will receive a lot of international attention,” Maurice Ogola, 31, computer technician, said. “That international limelight on Kenya and Africa is very good.
“We need much foreign aid, we need a lot of help to boost our economic growth, and that can come from a new America. Obama has a lot of potential to bring the much needed change.”
Kwabena Sam-Brew, a 38-year-old immigrant from Ghana, doubted that Nana, his 5-year-old American-born daughter, would remember the rally that effectively crowned Senator Barack Obama as the Democratic nominee Tuesday night.
But Mr. Sam-Brew said he would describe it to her: “I will tell her, ‘Tonight is the night that all Americans became one.’ ”
Mr. Sam-Brew, a bus driver living in Cottage Grove, Minn., said Mr. Obama’s achievement would change the nation’s image around the world, and change the mind-set of Americans, too.
“We as black people now have hope that we have never, ever had,” Mr. Sam-Brew said. “I have new goals for my little girl. She can’t give me any excuses because she’s black.”
In his remarks Tuesday, Mr. Obama did not mention becoming the first American of color with a real chance at being president of the United States, and, of course, most of the Democrats who had voted for him were white. But for that very reason, many African-Americans exulted Wednesday in a political triumph that they believed they would never live to see. Many expressed hope that their children would draw strength from the moment.
“Not that we’re so distraught, but our children need to be able to see a black adult as a leader for the country, so they can know we can reach for those same goals,” said Wilhelmina Brown, 54, an account representative for U.S. Bank in St. Paul. “We don’t need to give up at a certain level.”
Alison Kane, a white 34-year-old transportation analyst from Edina, Minn., said Mr. Obama’s success as a biracial politician would have a similar effect on her 21-month-old biracial daughter, Hawa.
“When she’s out in, God knows where, some small town in rural America, they’ll think, ‘Oh, I know someone like you. Our president is like you,’ ” Ms. Kane said. “That just opens minds for people, to have someone to relate to. And that makes me feel better, as a mom.”
But pride — in Mr. Obama and in white voters who had looked beyond race, in the view of many blacks — was tempered for many African-Americans by an unsettling concern. There remains a fear that race, which loomed large in some primaries and has previously been successfully employed as a political wedge by Republicans, might yet keep Mr. Obama from capturing the White House.
“People hate black people,” said Michella Minter, a black 21-year-old student in Huntington, W.Va., referring to persistent racism in the United States.
“I’m not trying to be racist or over the top but it is seriously apparent that black people aren’t valued in this country,” Ms. Minter said. “In the last 12 months, six kids were being tried for attempted murder for a school fight, an unarmed man got 51 bullets in his body by a New York police officer, died, and no one was charged, and endless other racist unknown acts have occurred this year.” (In fact, three New York City detectives were charged in the shooting of Sean Bell, killed in a hail of police bullets on his wedding day in 2006, and were acquitted.)
Mr. Obama’s moment seemed to unite blacks across the political spectrum, even those who had no intention of voting for a Democrat for president.
For example, Ward Connerly, a conservative anti-affirmative-action crusader and chairman of the American Civil Rights Institute, watched a replay of the announcement of Mr. Obama’s victory on Fox News early Wednesday “and I choked up,” he said. “He did it by his own achievement. Nobody gave it to him.” Mr. Connerly expressed hope that Mr. Obama’s rise would boost his own efforts to end affirmative action.
“The entire argument for race preferences is that society is institutionally racist and institutionally sexist, and you need affirmative action to level the playing field,” Mr. Connerly said. “The historic success of Senator Obama, as well as Senator Clinton, dismantles that argument.”
Mr. Obama has said that affirmative-action programs should become “a diminishing tool” in achieving racial equality, and has asked blacks to understand why such programs might engender resentment among whites, suggesting that poor white children also need a boost. Although he did not cast his victory in racial terms on Tuesday, he acknowledged on Wednesday that it might be having an effect on other African-Americans.
“Probably the most powerful story I heard was today at a conference, a woman came up to me,” he said in an interview on NBC News. “She said her son teaches in an inner-city school in San Francisco and said that he has seen a change in behavior among the young African-American boys there in terms of how they think about their studies. And, you know, so those are the kinds of things that I think make you appreciate that it’s not about you as an individual. But it’s about our country and the progress we’ve made.”
Thus far, Mr. Obama’s appeal has extended across racial lines, though to win in November he must do better in gaining the votes of white women and white working-class voters, whom he lost in Appalachia.
Yet on Tuesday, Ann Robb, a 61-year-old white school teacher from Terra Alta, W.Va. said he had won her support.
“I would’ve supported Hillary Clinton but something about Obama makes me believe again,” Ms. Robb said. That spirit, however long it lasts, already has left some African-Americans more optimistic than they have ever been about race relations in America.
“You can never change everybody’s minds, but it is going to help a lot,” said Mr. Sam-Brew, the bus driver, referring to Mr. Obama’s victory and the enduring resistance among some white voters to black leaders.
In Harlem on Wednesday, Hector Garcia, an African-American who manages Pee Dee Steak II, a restaurant on 125th Street, said the symbolism of Mr. Obama’s victory had not sunk in until he headed to work in the morning, when he saw the excitement it had produced.
The driver of an M102 bus chatted about it with a passenger. The owner of a hair salon and eyeglass store stopped Mr. Garcia on the sidewalk. And his customers were buzzing about it over their $6.99 steak.
“A lot of people think things will be different for the black community now,” said Mr. Garcia, 48, who supported Mrs. Clinton and has a photo of her on his wall. “It’s great.”
Ronald Jeffers, who gets a good beat on Harlem’s pulse handing out fliers under the marquee of the Apollo Theater, said he heard passers-by buzzing about Mr. Obama’s victory.
“I think it’s a monumental step,” said Mr. Jeffers, 55, who said he had been friends with Malcolm X and other leaders. The nomination is especially significant for Harlem’s children, he said, because “if they see this, they will think it’s something they can do.”
“Otherwise,” Mr. Jeffers said, “they look up to rappers.”
Jackie Almond, who cuts hair at the Pizazz Salon and Spa on Lenox Avenue in Harlem, said she was on the phone when she learned of the victory and broke into screams.
“I was like, ‘aaaahhhh,’ ” she said. “Never in a million years would I have thought this was possible.”
I agree with Mr. Almond. I never would have thought this possible in a million years. But here we are. We are indeed living at a pivotal moment in history. I hope we both reflect on its magnitude and seize its potential.