Barack H. Obama becomes the 44th President of the United States today.
By nightfall, the most often used adjective in the media will be “historic.” I don’t disagree. While I have been hesitant to see the election of a Black man to the White House as the “end of racism” or evidence that we’ve entered a “post-racial” America, it does carry with it a powerful symbolism.
In 1975, when noted colonial historian Edmund S. Morgan wrote the “rise of liberty and equality in America had been accompanied by the rise of slavery” he expressed a fact many of us find perplexing still today. How could both be the case? How could freedom and slavery exist together? Isn’t one “American” and the other an aberration? Morgan continued, “That two such seemingly contradictory developments were taking place simultaneously over a long period of time, from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth, is the central paradox of American history.”
Indeed, for most who chose not to ignore it, this has been the primary feature of the U.S. narrative of itself–contradiction. Freedom and slavery. Equality and oppression. We are a nation of competing forces, sometimes harmonizing with one another (to great human tragedy), at other times actively engaged in struggle with themselves.
Today doesn’t erase this. It doesn’t bring victory to one side over the other. But, in clear ways, it does close the space between the two. Time will tell how this is the case, and to what measure it is so, but that the contradictions and tensions have eased ever so slightly seems undeniable today.
This day can mean more than symbolism. I hope it does. While I often slip, I have to continually tell myself not to expect it from him more than I would from any other President. It’s not his job any more than it was their’s, than it was yours, ours. We all have a burden to bear in that cause.
So, today I celebrate. Tomorrow, I agitate.