The Tears of America

Even Colin Powell cried when on Tuesday he realized that America had elected a black president. “Everybody was crying,” he told CNN the next morning during a nice interview. And while he tried to explain this, he became misty-eyed again and he had to swallow his emotion. With a husky voice, the statesman and general continued bravely: “I am not ashamed. My family, my wife, my children–everybody…”–anyone who at this point still had dry eyes could finish the sentence–…was in tears.

On Tuesday, America cried for herself tears of joy, pride and relief, but also for memories of sorrow, bitterness and conflict-emotions that Obama’s victory unleashed.. It was a collective release of a tension that many Americans had carried all their lives.

A black columnist for the Washington Post, Eugene Robinson, described how he was overcome by emotions on election night. First, when he saw the tears streaming freely down Jesse Jackson’s face: he remembered how 40 years ago, the young Jackson had stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, when Martin Luther King was assassinated there. Tears welled up again when Robinson called his parents, who had gone through so much because of the color of their skin. And again, when he saw Obama on the stage in Chicago – what a contrast with the many broken families of black Americans. This radiant African-American quartet would soon be “the nation’s First family.” Yes, it can be so!

Black Americans were not the only ones who were deeply stirred, also white people and Republicans who had voted for McCain. A conservative colleague of Robinson wrote that she had awakened her children Wednesday morning singing “God Bless America.”

The civil rights movement fought, according to Martin Luther King, not only for the liberation of black Americans, but also for the “liberation of the American soul.” The American soul had always been trapped in the contradiction between the ideal that “all men are created equal” (from the first sentence of the 1776 Declaration of Independence) and the practice of slavery, discrimination and social neglect.

Nobody thinks that this painful wound in American life has now been healed forever. But it appears that the healing process has advanced much farther than most people had thought. American voters are finished with the fatalism over relations between races – something that had taken root with many whites and blacks.

A black president

The fact of how inconceivable this was only a short time ago was reflected Wednesday in the headlines of American newspapers. “Believe it,” stood in large print on the front page of a newspaper in Iowa, the largely white state where Obama only a year ago began his advance in the primaries. And in a newspaper in Southern Alabama, with its history of discrimination and racial violence, the headline: “In Our Lifetime.” In other words, who would have ever thought that we would live to see this?

A president in America is much more than a political leader. He is, as head of state, also a symbol and has almost royal status. He is a politician who is considered to embody the dignity of the office and the ideals of the state. And thus, the White House is more than a residence: it enjoys, as the People’s House, a huge status in the national psyche.

And now the voters have appointed a black man to lead the country and the government, and also to represent the idealistic capital of the country. They have invested their hopes in him, entrusted him with the key to the White House.

I can’t help it, wrote Robinson in his column, but I experience Obama’s election as a gesture of recognition and acceptance – which is patently absurd, if you think about it. As if black Americans have not for a long time already been responsible for much of the success in America, in war and in peace.

The emotions of Tuesday night did not only come forward because of what Obama has achieved as a black man. It was also about what America has achieved. In the year when Obama was born, black activists fought a hard battle to win equal rights on buses, in restaurants, and movie theaters.

Soon, the presidential band will strike Hail to the Chief for a black man as he climbs the steps, with his white cabinet members at an appropriate distance. And Americans will look up to him, as they have always, to some extent, looked up to their president, regardless of what they think of his political affiliation or performance.

It is always risky to be sentimental over politics. But Tuesday was an exception. There will surely be disillusionment, but no one can take America’s victory over itself away from the country.

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