Electing our nation’s first black president allowed America to breathe the next day. On the buses and commuter trains the next morning, children attended school with their parents tucking a copy of the Obama newspaper under arm. It’s a collectible. Where the night before we heard honking horns, the next dawn was sober as the news sunk in. Clouds covered the metropolis, from which tears never flowed in such unison. But instead of congratulating the country too much, we breathed to prepare for the next steps down an unknown path. President-elect Barack Obama (great ring to it) has been in the fire before as an Illinois State Senator. He has even faced down the Clinton juggernaut, the best Democrats had to offer in 20 years. But what stately man has thrived solely on poise in our time? Media superstars have sound bite power, but if we took Al Sharpton’s qualifications as seriously as we sometimes take his loud-mouthed approach, he would have had a chance at higher office. I digress.
Our future president has never stopped calculating the options. He was likely choosing Cabinet members once he thought the electoral map had been secured in October, and even before that. He could not predict that his world would be so profoundly affected though; that the emotions are stirring in our very souls. When a group of people has been moved to believe in the audacity of hope, as he puts it, their lives change in internal ways. The tremendous outpour of emotion is still washing over us. Images of people celebrating throughout the world are as common as their precedence is uncommon.
We know what to make of his prospective term only as history materializes before us. Hugo Chavez has his whims with Venezuelan oil. Vladimir Putin has his cronyism, assuring him indefinite power over another oil-rich nation. Muqtada al-Sadr holds the keys to Iraq power with few able to usurp his influence over hostility and violence in the region. For the people who rejoiced when they saw a different face rise to power on Election Day, there is another group incensed that it will test his competency beyond safe limits. His diligence will set him apart from leaders directly before him. Barack Obama has shown no signs of depleted humility, believing his good fortune could turn at any moment to dishonor if misused. Arranging a cabinet will require the same intellectual rigor as gathering a campaign staff. Juggling the interests of disillusioned poor folks, protective aristocrats and sore Republicans will test his willpower.
After getting off the train in Brooklyn at 3 a.m., November 5th for a hot dog, I overheard two black men talking about the victory. We all ended up leaning over the counter opposite the frying grease, picking apart what it would mean for us in daily circumstances. The main point hashed out?
“It’s good that he won. I know when I walk down the street in my hoodie and jeans, I’ll still get stopped.”
Brothers will be walking in fear for a while anyway. It means so much for the world to see that anyone from any race can now lay claim to the rarest levels of destiny. The amazement notwithstanding, there is work to do. Barack Obama has never betrayed that reality, neither in his words nor his actions. His victory speech was sober. History has been made, but it is ironically the main obstacle. If we rely on the wave of optimism inspired by this moment, ultimately we will fail our children. Those are the people who will be most affected by this change.
I know you didn’t do this just to win an election and I know you didn’t do it for me. You did it because you understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead. For even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime – two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century. Even as we stand here tonight, we know there are brave Americans waking up in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan to risk their lives for us. There are mothers and fathers who will lie awake after their children fall asleep and wonder how they’ll make the mortgage, or pay their doctor’s bills, or save enough for college. There is new energy to harness and new jobs to be created; new schools to build and threats to meet and alliances to repair.
One of the nation’s best thinkers has entrusted us with his fate; and he has shown that he will work in kind. This give-and-take relationship relies on our ability to sacrifice joyousness, to endure much more hardship for the plight of class struggles, to renew our natural resources and our mental ones. The calming breezes of the cloudy morning in the hot dog shop, and our sure-footed stride from downtrodden to equal ground will not be enough. And for those who fear what expectations saddle President-elect Obama, know that he has gotten where he is by factoring fear and resistance in to his plans, and that he works with the knowledge that our hopes for better outcomes hold him up in the difficult situations. I do not expect his first term to be perfect, or even for him to match his composure up to this point. He is human, though. For the first time, he is allowed to be human. There is no time for pride, but dignity is fundamental to his character. He will use it to fight back scrutiny while double-checking for his mistakes.
It feels all right that our president is cool and informed. The sigh of relief that brought on torrential rains in my part of the country will make it easier to bear this heavy load of uncounted votes and unheard voices past. To err is human. The roaring world may not hold him to that standard yet, but we must make individual commitments to that.
Because cool doesn’t mean perfect.