I don't want to belabor the recent election (heaven knows, I'm thrilled that it's over), but I want to share some thoughts about a conversation I had this morning.
The story actually begins at lunchtime on Tuesday - election day. As I was ordering my food from the black guy behind the counter, he asked me if I had voted. I explained that I hadn't done so yet, but would be leaving work soon to do it. As we chatted, I mentioned that Obama was expected to win. He asked, "Are you going to vote for Obama?" I answered, "Of course." A broad grin spread across his face and he extended his fist across the counter, saying, "Give me one." We did the fist bump thing, I walked away with my tray, and my mind immediately turned to other matters.
Fast forward to this morning. As I entered the dining room to get a cup of tea, this same man, who was cleaning the beverage counter, said to me,"I was talking with my 72-year-old father last night. As you can imagine, he's seen a lot of stuff in his lifetime. He's excited that a black man was elected president. It just means so much to him." I answered, "It's a huge step forward for our country."
As I sauntered back to my office, I tried to put myself in the shoes of a 72-year-old black man in America. When this man was born in 1936, lynching was still a white man's sport in some parts of the USA. Segregation of public facilities was the norm all over the country until 1954, when this man was 18 years old and Brown v. Board of Education outlawed segregation in public schools. He was 27 years old in 1963, when Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the enlightened and inspiring "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial (my eyes still tear up every time I hear or read that speech). In April 1968, when he was 32 years old, there was a bleak period when Americans of all colors feared that Dr. King's dream might have died with him in Memphis.
This man has spent a lifetime watching our country struggle to realize the visions enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, "all men are created equal," and in Dr. King's speech, that people "will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." I'll never know what it was like to live this man's life and see the things he's seen. I'll never understand how deeply Barack Obama's election inspires him and so many others who have been oppressed for no other reason than that some people are cruel, others are ignorant, and others are just stupid. I do know that Mr. Obama's election stirs a hope within me that my country is ready to repudiate its savage past and move ahead to forge a more just society. If Mr. Obama's election means that much to me, I can only imagine - barely and inadequately - what it means to my friend's father and millions of others like him. I'm proud to have participated in this historic moment and I'm looking forward to watching President Obama take his oath on January 20, 2009. I know that there's a 72-year-old black man who will be watching that ceremony with me.