By Ellen Goodman
It was 11 o’clock in Chicago when the new first family of the United States stepped out before a sea of joyous, incredulous, tearful Americans. Barely a year ago, many in that crowd and in our country had taken it as an article of faith that America wouldn’t elect a black man president. Oh we of little faith.
The eloquent man on whose slim shoulders this country now rests stood in Grant Park telling “anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible” that “tonight is your answer.”
As he spoke, as his supporters exhaled with relief and happiness, as victory margins rolled up and across the nation, I thought about a woman who missed this night. The woman he called Toot, the Kansas grandmother in the saga of this Kansas-Kenyan American.
Madelyn Dunham had “gone home” just one day before the election. This woman linked by ancestry and marriage to the nation’s original sin of slavery had voted for her grandson—and woe unto anyone who challenges that absentee ballot—but she wasn’t able to cross this historic finishing line.
There was symbolism as well as sadness in her passing. When we’re young, we think change is a 100-yard dash. As we get older we think it’s a marathon. Eventually we see a relay race.
Barack Obama once described Toot as “a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world” but “on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.” He was accused of “throwing his grandmother under the bus,” but he was openly describing a complex generational truth. He shared his ability to hear that truth and his desire to heal it.
Race was not “the issue” in this election. I know that. The issue was the economy. The issue was the war. The issue was the dark conviction that America was heading full speed ahead on a disastrously wrong track. We chose the cool hand of a change agent.
But if race wasn’t the “issue,” it was the “story” in the word history. It was the narrative, the huge question mark hovering around our sense of self on magazine covers and conversations that asked: “Is America Ready for a Black President?” It ended with a resounding “Yes, we can.”
Americans didn’t vote for Obama to prove that this is not the same country that once sicced dogs on black schoolchildren. But it proves that.
Americans didn’t pick Obama to rebrand our country in the eyes of the world and trash the cartoon images put forth by our enemies. But it does that.
We didn’t choose Obama to show that scare-mongering—socialism! radical! Muslim! Barack the Redistributor!—has failed. But it shows that.
So too, we didn’t push the lever for Obama to crack the shell of cynicism that dampens the expectations of inner-city black teenage sons of single mothers. And we didn’t elect Obama to grab back the word values from those who use it as a wedge to keep us at each other’s throats. But these messages also lurk in the 7-million-vote margin of victory.
There is a saying, widely attributed to Winston Churchill, that “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing ... after they have exhausted all other possibilities.” We arrived at a moment when change was the most conservative option. The 47-year-old president-elect came to represent the belief that Americans had to embrace change to conserve those things that mean the most to us, including our country’s future.
So Tuesday we voted to reboot America. All the problems Obama listed are on the desktop this morning: “two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century.” It won’t be long before excitement is edged with impatience.
But this is a day to celebrate our belief in possibilities. It’s a day to bear witness to a victory lap in the relay race of social change.
One of the first things Obama will do as president-elect is to bury the last of the people who raised him, the grandmother born in 1922, the American who lived through the Great Depression and a world war and “poured everything she had into me.” She was a woman, he once wrote, who was “content with common sense.” She used to say, “So long as you kids do well, Bar. That’s all that really matters.”
Today the country seconds her sentiment.
Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at)globe.com.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group