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Obama’s win is my win too—and the country’s

On Tuesday night, along with countless millions all over the world, I held my breath in front of the TV, waiting for the moment I never thought I’d see in my lifetime: a black President-elect, addressing an exultant crowd where friends wept in each other’s arms and exhausted but awe-struck children sat on their parents’ shoulders to get a good look at a spectacle that will linger in their minds until they leave this earth.

I have always been something of a loner, but that night I saw myself part of that throng. I am one of some 136 million Americans who voted for Barack Obama, whose thunderous victory has enlarged our collective sense of the possible.

I was not one of those who jumped onto the Obama bandwagon with the fervour of a religious convert. Who was this guy, the Second Coming? I thought he was short on experience and long on ego. Okay, so he was smart and could turn a phrase. Did that mean he could run the free world? “I’m not his biggest fan but I’ll vote for him,” I said. Like most loners, I’m skeptical of groundswell movements. But the true test of a leader is whether people feel moved to follow. And people were following Obama because he consistently projected hope, resolve and a sense of teamwork. These are my touchstones.

As crashing markets swept away jobs, homes and savings in what had been, since its birth, the world’s proudest nation, he didn’t waver. So I cast my absentee ballot with a growing conviction that Obama was the leader for this pivotal moment in history.

I have spent my entire adult life in Canada, the land of moderation and order. I grew up in the U.S., the land of epic passions and ambitions, where an exalted sense of national destiny inspires both the best and the worst in the populace. All through school, my teachers told me how lucky I was to be born in the land of the free and the home of the brave, where anyone could achieve any dream. I looked around and didn’t buy it. I was living in a country that had fought a civil war—its most bloody conflict—over the presumed right of whites to enslave blacks. On TV, I saw black Americans being set upon with dogs and fire hoses just because they wanted the same rights as everyone else. In my country, the most dangerous thing a person could do was register southern blacks to vote.

In 1963, just before my fourteenth birthday, the Ku Klux Klan bombed a black church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four schoolgirls , later memorialized in the most poetically eloquent of protest songs, “Birmingham Sunday”). I used to play that song on my guitar. I still remember the dead children’s names: Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley.

2008 04 Dr Martin Luther King JrAll my life I have been waiting for my native land to become what it had declared itself to be, with visionary courage. Two summers ago, I stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King shared the dream for which he died, and wondered when the full promise of that dream would be realized. I read the Gettysburg Address on the very spot where Abraham Lincoln urged a wounded nation to “resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” It didn’t seem right that as I thought about Lincoln, by common consensus the greatest American president, the guy in the White House was George W. Bush, who’s right up there with the worst.

A few nights before the last election, I sat in a neighbourhood bistro with a Canadian friend who warned dolefully, “I just know John McCain is going to win.” To hell with the polls, she insisted. Americans would never find it in their hearts to elect a black president. And besides, we were in thrall to the Christian right.

I got a bit steamed about this. “You underestimate Americans,” I said, gathering courage from a generous mouthful of merlot. “Times are changing. This year we have a choice between hope and fear, between division and inclusiveness. The real America is going to stand up for change.”

That sounded pretty good. Just short of stirring, in fact. Other diners were swiveling to check out this mouthy American broad with her wine-soaked proclamations. But what if my friend was right?

I was hoping against hope, not just for Obama to win but for the American people to reveal the shared values that transcend barriers of age, race, class, gender and religion. Which is exactly what we did on Tuesday, in near-record numbers.

Watching the ecstatic crowd in Chicago from my home in downtown Toronto, I felt both very old and very young. Old because my expectations had been formed by 50-year-old memories of slaughter and struggle. Young because, for the first time in my life, I had an open-hearted pride in my Americanness. I wanted to fix this moment in my mind, a talisman to console me during the years ahead, when our new President will be  relentlessly tested by challenges of monumental complexity.

Denise McNairI will remember Obama’s forthright humanity as he told the crowd he knew he would sometimes disappoint them (what a rare admission from a leader). I will remember Michelle, effortlessly stylish in big, funky earrings no other First Lady would have worn. And I’ll remember the bright smiles and party dresses of the two beautiful Obama girls, Malia and Sasha, who will be bringing a new puppy to the White House. Malia, the oldest is 10. I wonder if she’s heard of Denise McNair, the youngest of the murdered Birmingham children, who was 11 when she went to church on September 15, 1963, and never came back.

P.S. Just as I was finishing this post, my husband drew an irony to my attention. Black Americans, who overwhelmingly supported Obama, also supported ballot measures to ban same-sex marriage in California, Arizona and Florida. Those measures have passed—although moves to restrict abortion in California, South Dakota and Colorado did not. The Christian right, while not the powerhouse it used to be, is still alarmingly effective at restricting the rights of Americans.

Posted by Rona

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