I watched an old black woman laughing. Crying. Laughing and crying and saying joyfully “I’m glad I lived long enough to see this! Oh God! I’m glad I lived long enough to see this!”

They looked like people taking their first breath and really enjoying it. I didn’t see the haggard, submissive expression. I saw enthusiastic joy, free from restraint. If you saw it, if you heard it, there’s no way that a human being couldn’t be touched by it. How many people last night and this morning took their first real breath?

A friend of mine recently commented that she’s “just a white girl from a small town” but she just doesn’t get the near-messianic expectation surrounding Barack Obama being black and elected. Not why people broke down and cried, not why folks danced in the streets, or stayed up so late. Or why my cell phone blew up election night as every black person in my directory called or got called, all sharing a similar refrain. It boiled down to four words “not in my lifetime”.

Being just a white girl means, directly or not, she’s lived in the comfort of being in the majority and of white privilege. It means she’s never had to worry about being excluded from a system or the feeling of being targeted by that same system. It means she never had to live under a government whose constitution saw her as 3/5 human. It means you haven’t had to exist in the toxic mentality of “you can’t do that if you’re black”, “white people are against you”, and limited opportunities leaving you half-defeated before you start. It means you haven’t had to deal with images of you, in television and movies, leaving folks saying/thinking things like

You gold-teeth, gold-chain-wearing,fried-chicken-and-biscuit-eatin’,monkey, ape, baboon, big thigh,fast-running, three-hundred-sixty-degree-basketball-dunking spade Moulan Yan. Go the f*#$ back to Africa

It means that all no matter how false you think the majority of that mentality and stereotypes are, we’re still left with the reality of our history and experience: slavery was during my great-great-grandmother’s lifetime, segregation during my grandfather’s, the Civil Rights struggle during my father’s, the Tuskeegee Experiments during mine.

We still live in a world of rampant drug use/trade, a lack of educational opportunities, ghettos, and people incarcerated at alarming rates; however, progress has been made. At least my kids won’t have to face the dilemma of whether or not they should “pass” and forever hide and be tacitly ashamed of the fact that they are half black (“Daddy I’d be white cause it sounds easier.” –Malcolm Broaddus when I tried explaining to my six year old the idea of segregation).

Most important to the Obama victory was the long struggle of black Americans to be incorporated in the public sphere. No, President Barack Obama won’t redeem white people from the sin of racism (or whatever else some folks might imagine the import of his election might mean). But he represents a beacon of hope and the promise of change. His election might portend a true shift in our culture and how we see and treat one another. That is the root of the expectation: the hope of a better tomorrow in light of our many tragic yesterdays. Something many of us never thought we’d see in our lifetimes.

Edited to add this:

My Country
The Day Before, January 19, 2009
By Linda D. Addison

Here we stand, breath held,
sweet land of liberty
of thee we dream,
land where my ancestors
sleep easier now, freedom
will ring brighter in coming days.

Stars and stripes forever
red, white and blue
bringing us all home
finally, willing to be
responsible, each person finally
willing to be American.

History confronted, the stain,
violence, oppression faced
in the light of today, moved aside
for the Grace of Presence,
allowing forgiveness to begin,
the dissipation of karma.

Here we stand, breath held,
the day before liberty
dances, full and bright,
a land of humans, each
needing hope and peace,
willing to be American.