Tears, joy and Barack Obama's victory

When it became clear that by beating John McCain in both Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, Barack Obama was poised to become the first African-American president of the United States, my mind went blank. And then the tears came.

It sometimes happens that when something momentous is about to unfold — an event that I've anticipated with great excitement — I go numb. I remember when my daughter was born, I just kind of went blank for a few minutes. (OK, so it could have been the 36 hours of labour.)

But sometimes, it's just too much. When a million pictures and dreams from your past collide with a moment in the present and change your vision of the future, you sometimes need a moment. 

And so it was tonight when Barack Obama was elected as the first African-American president in the history of the United States.

'Race men' and fierce pride

I was raised in a political family. My father, a social worker in Harlem, was one of those politically brilliant men who never run for office, but whose instincts and knowledge and energy for politics is stunning in its breadth and depth. He was also a race man.

In America, a race man is a black man who is fiercely proud of his race and deeply committed to the political, social and educational advancement of black people. Among black people, to call a man a "race man" is a compliment.

This combination of fierce racial pride and political instinct and savvy made our house one where from our earliest years my siblings and I watched and dissected politics and grappled with issues of race and class.

I decided by the time I was 10 years old that I wanted to be a civil rights lawyer. My years spent litigating voting rights cases for a major civil rights organization were among the most professionally satisfying of my life. 

I've worked for and with African-American voters for 20 years, advocating and pushing to ensure that the right to vote, so hard fought-for by our ancestors, would be fully realized.  I lived through Jesse Jackson's 1984 and 1988 bids for the presidency, and the 2000 election, when so many black voters were disenfranchised by voter purges and malfunctioning machines, and finally by the Supreme Court's decision that ended the recount in Florida.

Emotions flow after decisive moment

And so, by 8:45 p.m. Tuesday night, when it became clear that by beating John McCain in both Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, Barack Obama was poised to become the first African-American president of the United States, my mind went blank. 

And then the tears came. 

The tears were not only for my father, who died years too early too see this day. My tears were for Fannie Lou Hamer, the great grassroots activist, who endured a brutal beating by a white sheriff in Mississippi in 1963 because she tried to register to vote. For Shirley Chisholm, the black congresswoman from New York with the gap-toothed smile, who ran for president in 1972. For Jesse Jackson, whose path-breaking runs for the White House first galvanized millions of white voters in support of a black presidential candidate.

My tears were tears of absolute joy — pride at this amazing accomplishment.

I'm not one who normally gets sentimental over black "firsts." For me, it isn't enough that Obama is just the first black president. 

It's that he's shown himself to be a man of such tremendous brilliance, integrity and accomplishment. It's that he refused to bow, and refused to lower himself to meet so many of the unfair attacks hurled against him. That he remained disciplined and focused. That his love for his family is apparent in every moment we see him with them. That he is an exceptional man — of any race. 

And I'm proud, so proud and heartened to see how readily so many whites — even those who otherwise regard themselves as racists — were willing to overcome their irrational fears and to vote for this amazing man.

Savouring the moment

But my tears, I realized, were also for my children. Not, as one might expect, because they will never have to face the kind of barriers, the kind of limited dreams that even my generation had to accept as part of our lives. But because I know that my children can never really appreciate what this day means. 

In a world where the biggest musical stars are black, and my children have grown up surrounded by black congressmen and judges and university professors and doctors, how could they fully understand the breakthrough that Obama's election represents? 

And so it is that the success of our struggles separates us forever from our children. We have known captivity in Egypt. They are children of the Promised Land. Perhaps that's a good thing. They are new people — 21st-century people. People for whom "race men" will seem a quaint relic.

And yet I know that the work is not finished. Tonight we — my children, my father, black people, white Americans, all Americans — have made a huge step.  But it's only a step. A step that ironically will make it more difficult in many instances to convince people that there's still more work to be done to bring about racial equity and justice. 

My tears are also perhaps for this truth. For the knowledge that the struggles will resume almost as quickly as the first joy fades. 

But tonight, I'll just savour the joy.