The leaves were not all that was changing in Lafayette Park. I had never before seen a patriotic mosh-pit, but I was gladly trapped in one outside the White House in the hours after Barack Obama's inexorable but still unimaginable victory. I had also never seen young people march on the White House in the cause of joy. But now hundreds of exhilarated students had put down their copies of Negri and Hardt and lucidly picked up American flags, and as they flowed in from Pennsylvania Avenue in the rainy night they sang "The Star Spangled Banner" and "God Bless America." I do not mean to exaggerate the beauty of the scene—it was also boorish and hormonal, and I doubt that there was a soul among the cheering, hoodied, text-messaging crowd who cared much about, say, what General Kayani told General Petraeus; but I would be lying, I would be hardened in precisely the way I do not wish to be hardened, if I did not report that the scene was beautiful. When they began to cry "USA! USA!", the jingoistic crudity of the chant was gone; and while they were finding their way to the ferocious assertion of the love of country that had been the trademark of their Republican counterparts, those same counterparts on the other side of the country, the ones now marooned in the Palin-Jindal-Hensarling primitivism, were disgracing John McCain, a lost but wrenchingly honorable man, by jeering at the mention of the new president's name. Americans who were not moved by what happened the other night were in some way unAmerican. A dry eye was a misinterpretation of American history.
THERE ARE MOMENTS when pure feeling is also intelligent feeling. When suddenly CNN revealed its wall-sized announcement of the outcome, I experienced a blissful and unembarrassed rush of racialism. Only a hologram of Frederick Douglass would have excited me more. In that instant, forgive me, all I cared to know about Barack Obama was his color. A man of mixed race—no, an African American—no, a black man—no, let us not forget the whole odious story, a Negro—was elected to the presidency of the United States. There could be no more definitive demonstration of the American system of possibility than this; none. The oldest and most plausible pessimism of all had been retired. I recognized that this was a triumph for all of us, but before it was a triumph for all of us it was a triumph for some of us, and I was happy for them, for my black brothers and sisters, before I was happy for me. They had borne so much and waited so long. On this night they had overcome. And so my happiness was quickly complicated by a solemn sensation of respect: what were the tears in my eyes compared to the tears in their eyes? According to Obama's ideal of inclusiveness, they were the ones being included in my American narrative; but somehow I felt also like I was being included in their American narrative, and I was honored to have a place in it. Their elevation elevated me, too. Equality is universal, but the paths to equality are particular. As we glorified our similarities, I bowed my head before our differences, which are blessings when they are not curses.
MANY YEARS AGO I had an interesting disagreement with a writer for my pages, who concluded an essay with an observation about the joy of justice. I objected that justice cannot be accompanied by joy, because it is preceded by injustice. The consciousness of tragedy can be assuaged, but it cannot be eradicated. The morning after the epiphany in America, I remarked a little sheepishly to a friend that from the way I had surrendered to my emotions, you would think that my own ancestors were slaves. And then I saw it: I had surrendered to my emotions because my own ancestors were slaves. How can a Jew, I mean a Jewish Jew, not rejoice at the election of Barack Obama? Not politically, where the road ahead may be rough; but historically, spiritually. We, too, remember the pharaohs; and we, too, choose never to hate the world; and we, too, have a hope of being saved by America. Our path to freedom was simpler, of course: we did not seek our freedom in the society in which we were enslaved. But like the black community in America, the Jewish community in America is wrestling with the lucky but harsh dissonance between progress and memory. Our experience is discontinuous with the experience of our ancestors. Their ordeals are increasingly unrecognizable to us, and we do not possess a natural knowledge of their pressures and their pains. And as our identification with victims and martyrs becomes inexact and even preposterous, we may be tormented by the suspicion that contentment is a form of treason. That is why some among us caution us not to be fooled by America, and grimly proclaim that our adversity is our destiny. I expect that in the African American community there will soon arise similar fatalists, who will remind their brethren of the tenacity of prejudice, and instruct that an African American in the White House is not the solution to all of black America's problems. They will be right, but they will be wrong. Their reluctance to challenge the bleakness in their tradition damages their sense of the actual. But the presidency of Barack Obama represents the glittering culmination of the African-American gamble on America, and the grand repudiation of the lachrymosity that is one of the foundations of a minority's identity. It is hard, but it is heroic, to believe the best when you are regularly commemorating the worst.
I WOKE UP the next morning still under the spell of solidarity and love. I decided to make the spell last. I gave away my tickets to a performance of some late Shostakovich quartets, because for once I was not interested in the despair. Instead I spent the day listening to the Ebonys and the Chi-Lites and the Isley Brothers. For lunch I went to Georgia Brown's for fried green tomatoes. A day of dopey symbols, I admit. But reality, or the rest of it, will have to wait. It will be back soon enough; and anyway the election of a black president is also an element of reality. My elation about the Obama presidency is not to be confused with my expectation of the Obama administration. But for now I will defer my fears and my anxieties, and revel in a fact. And if, in the words of Derek Walcott,
this season lasted one moment,
like the pause
between dusk and darkness,
between fury and peace,
... for such as our earth is now,
it lasted long.
This article originally ran in the November 19, 2008 issue of the magazine.