MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Well, as old theories are sent to the trash, Barack Obama's election has become a new transformative moment in African-American history. And commentator Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the writer and Harvard professor, has these thoughts to mark the moment.
Professor HENRY LOUIS GATES JR. (Writer; Director, W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research, Harvard University): Nothing could have prepared any of us for the eruption of spontaneous celebration that manifested itself in black homes, in gathering places, and on the streets of our communities when Senator Barack Obama was declared President-elect Barack Obama.
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? What would Frederick Douglass and W.E.B Du Bois say if they could know what our people had at long last achieved?
Would they say that all those lost hours of brutalizing toil and labor resulting in spent, half-fulfilled lives, all those rapes and murders, those lynchings and assassinations, would they say that surviving these horrors was the price that 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, said that the day was not a day for speeches and scarcely a day for prose. 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 has come!
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. I wish we could say that all these things are about to happen. I doubt that they will.
But there is one thing that we can proclaim today without question, that the election of Senator Barack Obama as president of the United States means that the Ultimate Color Line has, at long last, been crossed. It has been crossed by our very first postmodern race man. How does that make me feel? All I can say is, amazing grace, how sweet the sound. It was grace that brought us safe thus far, and grace will lead us home.
BLOCK: Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. His commentary came to us from theroot.com.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.