Black Americans Achieve Their Dream Deferred

Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. Courtesy of Henry Louis Gates Jr. hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Henry Louis Gates Jr.

We have all heard stories about those few magical transformative moments in African-American history, extraordinary ritual occasions through which the geographically and socially diverse black community — a nation within a nation, really — molds itself into one united body, determined to achieve one great social purpose and to bear witness to the process by which this grand achievement occurs.

But we have never seen anything like this. Nothing could have prepared any of us for the eruption (and, yes, that is the word) of spontaneous celebration that manifested itself in black homes, gathering places and on the streets of our communities when Sen. Barack Obama was declared President-elect Barack Obama.

How many of our ancestors have given their lives — how many millions of slaves toiled in the fields in endlessly thankless, mindless labor — before this generation could live to see a black person actually become the president of the United States?

"How long, Lord?" the spiritual goes. "Not long!" is the resounding response.

What would Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois say if they could know what our people had at long last achieved? What would Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman say? Would they say that all those lost hours of brutalizing toil and labor — resulting in spent, half-fulfilled lives, all those humiliations that our ancestors had to suffer through each and every day, all those rapes and murders, lynchings and assassinations, all of those black collective dreams deferred — that the unbearable pain of all of those tragedies had, in the end, been assuaged at least somewhat through Barack Obama's election? His victory is not redemption for all of this suffering, but it is the symbolic culmination of the black freedom struggle, the grand achievement of a great, collective dream. Would they say that surviving these horrors, hope against hope, was the price we had to pay to become truly free?

I think they would, resoundingly and with one voice proclaim, "Yes! Yes! And yes, again!" I believe they would tell us that it had been worth the price that we, collectively, have had to pay — the price of President-elect Obama's ticket.

On that first transformative day when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, Frederick Douglass, the greatest black orator in our history before Dr. King Jr., said that the day was not a day for speeches and "scarcely a day for prose." Rather, he said, "it is a day for poetry and song, a new song."

Blow ye the trumpet, blow!
The gladly solemn sound
Let all the nations know,
To earth's remotest bound:

The year of jubilee is come!
The year of jubilee is come!
Return, ye ransomed sinners, home.

I wish we could say that Barack Obama's election will magically reduce the numbers of teenage pregnancies or the level of drug addiction in the black community. I wish we could say that what happened last night will suddenly make black children learn to read and write as if their lives depended on it, and that their high school completion rates will become the best in the country. I wish we could say that these things are about to happen, but I doubt that they will.

But there is one thing we can proclaim today without question: that the election of Sen. Barack Obama as president of the United States of America means that The Ultimate Color Line has, at long last, been crossed. It has been crossed by our very first postmodern Race Man, a man who embraces his African cultural and genetic heritage so securely that he can transcend it, becoming the candidate of choice to tens of millions of Americans who look nothing at all like him.

How does that make me feel? All I can say is "Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound. T'was Grace that brought us safe thus far ... and Grace will lead us home."

This is an excerpt from a piece that appeared on TheRoot.com. Click here to read the piece in its entirety.

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