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The Content of Our Character: Making The History Of President Obama

November 5, 2008, 1:38 pm

We did it. Oh my God, let me help the Bushies pack. I’ve been saving boxes for them. And once we’re done, I’ll start saving boxes for Joe the Senator, that skunk of a former Democrat who has succeeded in making himself completely irrelevant. Hope it was worth it, Senator Lieberman: at least you will have two wars and thousands dead to look back on when you are going through your memory books in two years.

I myself feel as though I have just been liberated from a dictatorship: I cried throughout Obama’s victory speech last night, overwhelmed with relief, exhaustion and the hope that things would be different soon. And you know, wherever Obama comes down on GLBTQ rights in the end, he won’t be out to to get us like the Bushies and their pals in the Heart(less)land were. Things have been so bad — for example, using hideous, antigay initiatives to get poor, white conservatives to the polls to vote for politicians who were ready to turn the economic screws harder on those same voters — that I would settle for just being left alone by the state and by the people of this great land. And if Obama can do better than that, well then, Goddess bless him.

In the midst of our long-awaited celebration, may I inject a request that our euphoria not cause us to over-read what has just happened? One of the things that is going to be a little hard to take over the next few days is the ooze of self-congratulation already begun in the media about the sea-change in American race relations, “proven” by the majority of the electorate having chosen an African-American man as president. I needn’t remind you that, although put in context it was a resounding victory, many millions of people did not vote for Obama: some of those people will become reconciled to his presidency and many, I suspect, will not.

This means that we need to take with a grain of salt the announcement by pundits like Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, that inequality, and the culture of racial meanness that has pervaded politics since Reconstruction, is officially at an end. “And so it came to pass” Friedman writes biblically, “that on Nov. 4, 2008, shortly after 11 p.m. Eastern time, the American Civil War ended, as a black man — Barack Hussein Obama — won enough electoral votes to become president of the United States.” He continues:

“A civil war that, in many ways, began at Bull Run, Virginia, on July 21, 1861, ended 147 years later via a ballot box in the very same state. For nothing more symbolically illustrated the final chapter of America’s Civil War than the fact that the Commonwealth of Virginia — the state that once exalted slavery and whose secession from the Union in 1861 gave the Confederacy both strategic weight and its commanding general — voted Democratic, thus assuring that Barack Obama would become the 44th president of the United States.

“This moment was necessary, for despite a century of civil rights legislation, judicial interventions and social activism — despite Brown v. Board of Education, Martin Luther King’s I-have-a-dream crusade and the 1964 Civil Rights Act — the Civil War could never truly be said to have ended until America’s white majority actually elected an African-American as president.

“That is what happened Tuesday night and that is why we awake this morning to a different country. The struggle for equal rights is far from over, but we start afresh now from a whole new baseline. Let every child and every citizen and every new immigrant know that from this day forward everything really is possible in America.”

After an entire election season of barely talking about race at all, suddenly an Obama victory has unleashed a torrent of reflection on slavery, the Civil War, and the civil rights movement. (Um — does anyone remember what happened to erode black citizenship after the civil rights movement? Like unprecedented rates of incarceration, ending antipoverty programs, and defunding public eduction?) Allusions to the horrors of American racism should probably be dealt with gently by the Obama administration, to be sure. Most white Americans don’t really understand them, and they don’t understand how they are implicated in inequality. But I am not comfortable with the announcement that Obama’s great victory has simply bookended this history, and that we can now start all over. For example, on NPR yesterday, a white construction worker explained that he thought undocumented Mexican workers should be paid as much as he is, and that equal pay for equal work should be guaranteed by law — but he doesn’t want “them” in his union. Why? the reporter asked. Because, Joe the Carpenter explained, he doesn’t.

Americans have a great fantasy about starting over. That was, in part, what the original colonial project in the Americas relied on: people who had mucked up their lives in Spain, or France, or England, or Scotland coming to try all over again in a place that they thought — mistakenly — was empty. Or Puritans leaving behind a corrupt church to gain God’s grace all over again. Think of Lincoln surveying the scorched and tangled ground of Gettysburg battlefield, piles of bodies as yet unburied, and reassuring his audience that this evidence of political catastrophe marked a moment to rebuild American politics. Or think of the Mormons, piling their polygamous families in wagons and leaving their charred homes behind in Illinois, enduring endless hardship to get the shores of the Great Salt Lake, where Brigham Young announced firmly, “This is the place.” And think of the Indians who had, in fact, lived in that place, and have been starting over ever since.

It’s a myth, for sure. And yet, Americans do start over. Again and again. We fling history to the winds, we change our names, we change our genders, we change our noses and tummies, we change our wives, we change our vinyl siding. It is an indisputable feature of how Americans, and people who have longed to be Americans, understand the promise of this country. So it’s wrong that we can just start over as if the long history of American crimes against black people never happened, but if we exercise some caution, it can be right too. After a Republican reign that has been a catastrophe, in which bad things happened one after another, each thing more incredible — and predictable — than the last, the nation has been liberated once again. This time we will be freed by a mixed race man, his father an immigrant, who will be the first black president — not just in the history of the United States — of the Western industrialized world.

But after the euphoria passes, let’s get to work, shall we? Let’s figure out what starting over really means and what it is going to take, on the streets and in the classrooms. Listening to John McCain’s supporters boo and catcall the next President of the United States last night (something he and Sarah Palin taught them to do, just like Elizabeth Dole authorized that awful Jesse Helms-ian ad against Kay Hagen that will stain her otherwise good name forever) reminds me of the meanness that has been unleashed by the McCain/Palin campaign, a meanness that has lurked under the surface of every major Republican policy, and every major political season, since Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. There’s lots of work to do, but repairing our political culture is at the to
p of the list.

Oh — and if you are a soldier in Iraq? Keep your head down and your vest buttoned tightly, friend. You’re coming home.

For good post-election activities, click here for Barack’s pre-inaugural reading list , compiled by Scott McLemee of Inside Higher Education. Your Radical is featured, as is her Zenith colleague Elvin Lim.

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