The American Museum of Natural History threw a spectacular party on New Year's Eve 1999, but perhaps the millennium really arrived there just a few weeks ago. A group of New York City schoolchildren were at an event marking the 150th birthday of Theodore Roosevelt, naturalist and president, and at the end of the visit one of the kids raised his hand. "I have a question," he said. "Was he black?"
History will record that on Nov. 4, 2008, Barack Hussein Obama was elected the first black president of the United States. It is impossible to overstate what that means to this nation.
America is as much a concept as it is a country, but it is a concept too often honored in the breach. The Statue of Liberty welcomes with the words "Give me your tired, your poor." Yet generation after generation of immigrants arrived here to face contempt and hatred until the passage of time, the flattening of accents, turned them into tolerated natives. The Declaration of Independence states unequivocally that all men are created equal. Yet for years the politicians and the powerful seemed to take the gender of that noun literally and denied all manner of rights to women.
But no injustice or prejudice brought to bear by this country against its own people can compare with how it has treated black men and women. Humiliation, degradation, lynchings, beatings, murders. The rights the United States pretended to confer upon all were unthinkingly and consistently denied them: the right to the franchise, to representation, to protection by the justice system.
Literal ownership gave way to something not so different: "When we are moved to better our lot," Richard Wright wrote in 1941, "we do not ask ourselves 'can we do it?' but 'will they let us do it?' " Henry Louis Gates Jr., in the memoir "Colored People," says simply, "For most of my childhood, we couldn't eat in restaurants or sleep in hotels, we couldn't use certain bathrooms or try on clothes in stores." Alice Walker left home for college on a bus and was ordered to move after a white woman complained that she was too near the front.
None of this was so very long ago.
Time passed. Things changed. John Lewis, a boy who loved books but was not permitted to enter the public library, a man whose skull was fractured by Alabama state troopers when he led a peaceful march across a bridge, now sits in Congress. Gates is a professor at Harvard, Walker a revered writer. Segregation as a matter of law has given way to segregation as a matter of class and custom. As President-elect Obama said when he gave a speech about race earlier this year, speaking of systemic poverty, bad schools and broken families, "Many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow."
But Obama said something else in that speech, something both simpler and more profound that has special resonance now that his improbable candidacy has prevailed. He made the political spiritual. "In the end, then," he said, "what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world's great religions demand—that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us." He asked the American people to be fair and just, to be kind and generous, to put prejudice behind them and be one people because that is, not a legal or social imperative, but a moral one.
There will be learned discussion in the years to come about the specific meaning of this moment, about whether it will be more symbolic than substantive, about whether having a black president will lull Americans into believing that racism is a thing of the past. But for just a moment consider this small fact: for a long time a black man in many parts of the United States was denied even the honorific "Mister" by the white community, and was instead called by his first name, like a child, no matter how elderly and esteemed he might be.
Now a black man will be called Mr. President.
They never thought they would see the day, people said, especially the older ones, who could remember the murders of Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers and Malcolm X. They wept, some of them, and so did I. Perhaps it was because this man seems so young and vigorous in a nation that seems old and tired. Perhaps it is because he promises change and hope, and both are so badly needed. He is the president for our children's generation, a more tolerant and diverse society, so insensible of bright dividing lines that one of them would idly wonder whether Theodore Roosevelt was a black man. They belie a time when there was a crayon labeled "flesh" in my Crayola box, a crayon that was a pale pink.
But I suspect that, like many others, I wept for myself, too, because I felt I was part of a country that was living its principles. Despite all our prejudices, seen and hidden, millions of citizens managed, in the words of Dr. King, to judge Barack Obama by the content of his character and not the color of his skin. There were many reasons to elect him president, but this was one collateral gift: to be able to watch America look an old evil in the eye and to say, no more. We must be better than that. We can be better than that. We are better than that.