"For the first time in my adult lifetime I am really proud of my country. And not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change." -- Michelle Obama, Feb. 18, 2008
I always thought I understood what Michelle Obama was trying to say.
You are familiar, of course, with what she actually did say, which is quoted above. It provided weeks of red meat for her husband's opponents, who took to making ostentatious proclamations of their own unwavering pride in country.
But again, I think I know what the lady meant to say. Namely, that with her husband, this brown-skinned guy with the funny name, making a credible run for the highest office in the land, she could believe, for the first time, that "we the people" included her.
It is, for African Americans, an intoxicating thought almost too wonderful for thinking. Yet, there it is. And here we are, waking up this morning to find Barack Obama president-elect of these United States.
In a sense, it is unfair -- to him, to us -- to make Tuesday's election about race. Whatever appeal Obama may have had to African Americans and white liberals eager to vote for a black candidate is, I believe, dwarfed by his appeal to Americans of all stripes who have simply had enough of the politics of addition by division as practiced by Karl Rove and his disciples, enough of the free-floating anger, the holiday from accountability, the nastiness masquerading as righteousness, the sheer intellectual dishonesty, that have characterized the era of American politics that ends here.
But in the end, after all that, there still is race.
And it would be a sin against our history, a sin against John Lewis and Viola Liuzzo, against James Reeb and Lyndon Johnson, against Fannie Lou Hamer and Martin Luther King, against all those everyday heroes who marched, bled and died 40 years ago to secure black people's right to vote, not to pause on this pinnacle and savor what it means. It would be a sin against our generations, against slaves and freedmen, against housemen and washerwomen, against porters and domestics, against charred bodies hanging in southern trees, not to be still and acknowledge that something has happened here, and it is sacred and profound.
For most of the years of the American experiment, "we the people" did not include African Americans. We were not included in "we." We were not even included in "people."
What made it galling was all the flowery words to the contrary, all the perfumed lies about equality and opportunity. This was, people kept saying, a nation where any boy might grow up and become president. Which was only true, we knew, as long as it was indeed a boy and as long as the boy was white.
But as of today, we don't know that anymore. What this election tells us is that the nation has changed in ways that would have been unthinkable, unimaginable, flat-out preposterous, just 40 years ago. And that we, black, white and otherwise, better recalibrate our sense of the possible.
There was something bittersweet in watching Michelle Obama lectured on American pride this year, in seeing African Americans asked to prove their Americanness when our ancestors were in this country before this country was. There was something in it that was hard to take, knowing that we have loved America when America did not love us, defended America when it would not defend us, believed in American ideals that were larger than skies, yet never large enough to include us.
We did this. For years unto centuries, we did this. Because our love for this country is deep and profound. And complicated and contradictory. And cynical and hard.
Now it has delivered us to this singular moment. Barack Obama is president-elect of the United States.
And we the people should be proud.