In Our Lifetime
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.
The first time was New Year's Day in 1863, when tens of thousands of black people huddled together all over the North waiting to see if Abraham Lincoln would sign the Emancipation Proclamation. The second was the night of 22 June 1938, the storied rematch between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, when black families and friends crowded around radios to listen and cheer as the Brown Bomber knocked out Schmeling in the first round. The third, of course, was 28 August 1963, when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed to the world that he had a dream, in the shadow of a brooding Lincoln, peering down on the assembled throng, while those of us who couldn't be with him in Washington sat around our black-and-white television sets, bound together by King's melodious voice through our tears and with quickened flesh.
But we have never seen anything like we witnessed last night. 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 the streets of our communities when Sen. Barack Obama was declared President-elect Obama. From Harlem to Harvard, from Maine to Hawaii—and even Alaska—from "the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire . . . [to] Stone Mountain of Georgia," as Dr. King put it, each of us will always remember this moment, as will our children, whom we woke up to watch history being made.
My colleagues and I laughed and shouted, whooped and hollered, hugged each other and cried. My father waited ninety-five years to see this day happen, and when he called last night, I silently thanked God for allowing him to live long enough to cast his vote for the first black man to become president. And even he still can't quite believe it! How many of our ancestors have given their lives—how many millions of slaves toiled in the fields in endlessly thankless and mindless labor—before this generation could live to see a black person become president? "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? What would Dr. King himself say? Would they say that all those lost hours of brutalizing toil and labor leading to spent, half-fulfilled lives, all those humiliations that our ancestors had to suffer through each and every day, all those slights and rebuffs and recriminations, all those rapes and murders, lynchings and assassinations, all those Jim Crow laws and protest marches, those snarling dogs and bone-breaking water hoses, all of those beatings and all of those killings, all of those 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? This certainly doesn't wipe that bloody slate clean. His victory is not redemption for all of this suffering; rather, 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, to live to see—exactly 389 years after the first African slaves landed on these shores—that "great gettin' up morning," on 4 November 2008, when a black man—Barack Hussein Obama—was elected the first African American president of the United States?
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 Martin Luther King Jr., said that the day was not a day for speeches and "scarcely a day for prose." Rather, he noted, "it is a day for poetry and song, a new song." Over 3,000 people, black and white abolitionists together, waited for the news all day in Tremont Temple, a Baptist church a block from Boston Common. When a messenger burst in, after 11 p.m., and shouted, "It is coming! It is on the wires," the church went mad; Douglass recalled that "I never saw enthusiasm before. I never saw joy." And then he spontaneously led the crowd in singing "Blow Ye the Trumpet, Blow," John Brown's favorite hymn:
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.
At that moment, an entire race, one that in 1863 in the United States comprised 4.4 million souls, became a unified people, breathing with one heart, speaking with one voice, united in mind and spirit, all their aspirations concentrated into a laser beam of almost blind hope and desperate anticipation. The year of jubilee had come!
It is astounding to think that many of us today—myself included—can remember when it was a huge deal for a black man or woman to enter the White House through the front door, and not through the servants' entrance. The history of notable black visitors to the White House is staggering to consider today.
Paul Cuffe, the wealthy sea captain, shipping merchant, and the earliest "Back to Africa" black colonist, will forever have the distinction of being the first black person, other than a slave, to be invited to the White House for an audience with the president. Cuffe saw President James Madison at the White House on 2 May 1812, at precisely 11 a.m. and asked the president's intervention in recovering his famous brig Traveller, which had been impounded because officials said he had violated the embargo with Britain. Cuffe, after the Quaker fashion, called Madison "James"; "James," in turn, got Paul's brig back for him, probably because Cuffe and Madison both favored the emigration of freed slaves back to Africa. (Three years later, on 10 December 1815, Cuffe used this ship to carry thirty-eight black people from the United States to Sierra Leone.)
Among other historic occasions of black visitors to the White House was a most curious one, on 14 August 1862. Just over a month before he would sign the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln invited five black freedmen to the White House, not to tell them of his plans to emancipate slaves in the seceded Confederacy, but to implore them to take the lead in colonizing the freed slaves completely out of the United States, to a region he had identified in what is now Panama.
Frederick Douglass, who thought Lincoln's scheme both racist and mad, would visit the White House three times during Lincoln's presidency, most notably immediately after Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address in March 1865, when he responded to a curious Lincoln that his speech had been "a sacred effort." (Douglass met with every subsequent president at the White House until his death in 1895.) In the spring of 1864, Sojourner Truth became the first black woman to visit a president at the White House on a matter of state, while Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Todd Lincoln's dressmaker and confidante, brought a spiritualist to the White House after the Lincolns' son, Willie, died there in 1862.
After each visit to the White House by a well-known black figure, people celebrated another "victory for the race," especially when Booker T. Washington, in 1901, became the first black person to dine at the White House, by invitation of Theodore Roosevelt. In 1914 Woodrow Wilson threw the black activist William Monroe Trotter out of the White House for being insolent: Trotter had demanded the desegregation of government clerks! After that incident, black visitors at the White House were few and far between.
Blacks became frequent visitors to Franklin Roosevelt's White House; FDR even had a "Kitchen Cabinet" through which blacks could communicate the needs of their people. Because of the civil rights movement, Lyndon Johnson had a slew of black visitors, most notably, of course, Dr. King, for consultations and for the signing of civil rights bills. During Bill Clinton's presidency, I attended a White House reception with so many black political, academic, and community leaders that it occurred to me that there hadn't been as many black people in the Executive Mansion perhaps since slavery. Everyone laughed at the joke, because they knew, painfully, that it was true.
Visiting the White House is one thing; occupying the White House is quite another. And yet, African American aspirations to the White House date back generations. In 1872 Frederick Douglass became the first black man nominated for vice president, on the ticket of the Equal Rights Party, with Victoria Woodhull. (Their campaign slogan: "Yes! Victoria we've selected/For our chosen head;/With Fred Douglass on the ticket/We will raise the dead.")
Douglass, ever the loyal Republican, supported Ulysses S. Grant. The first black senator, Blanche K. Bruce (who was elected by the Mississippi legislature) received a floor nomination for president at the GOP convention in 1880 and received eight votes for vice president; eight years later, he received 11 votes for vice president at the GOP convention.
However, the very first black man put forward on a ticket as a political party's nominee for U.S. president was George Edwin Taylor, on the National Liberty Party ticket in 1904. Born in 1857 to a slave father and a free-born Negro mother, Taylor was educated for three years at a Baptist college in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. He became a journalist for the La Crosse Evening Star, a white newspaper, eventually becoming its editor-in-chief and half owner. In 1891 he moved to Iowa; a year later, he was elected an alternate at-large delegate to the Republican National Convention of 1892, where he emerged as "the Negro leader" of the anti-Harrison contingent. When that campaign proved unsuccessful, he joined the Democratic Party and became an alternate delegate to its 1896 convention. He served four years as president of the Negro National Democratic League before becoming a founding member, in 1903, of the National Liberty Party, of which he became the standard-bearer.
Portions of his campaign document could have been written by Barack Obama: "… in the light of the history of the past four years, with a Republican president in the executive chair, and both branches of Congress and a majority of the Supreme Court of the same political faith, we are confronted with the amazing fact that more than one-fifth of the race are actually disfranchised, robbed of all the rights, powers and benefits of true citizenship, we are forced to lay aside our prejudices, indeed, our personal wishes, and consult the higher demands of our manhood, the true interests of the country and our posterity, and act while we yet live, 'ere the time when it shall be too late. No other race of our strength would have quietly submitted to what we have during the past four years without a rebellion, a revolution, or an uprising."
The revolution that Taylor goes on to propose, he says, is one "not by physical force, but by the ballot," with the ultimate sign of the success being the election of the nation's first black president.
But given all of the racism to which black people were subjected following Reconstruction and throughout the first half of the twentieth century, no one could actually envision a Negro becoming president—"not in our lifetimes," as our ancestors used to say. The ultimate act of wishful thinking on this matter took the form of a little book written by Joel A. Rogers, published in 1965, entitled "The Five Negro Presidents." Since Rogers couldn't imagine that a black person could actually become president, he did the next best thing, painting five presidents black in retrospect!
When James Earl Jones became America's first black fictional president in the 1972 film, The Man, I remember thinking, "imagine that!" His character, Douglass Dilman, the president pro tempore of the Senate, ascends to the presidency after the president and the speaker of the House are killed in a building collapse, and after the vice president declines the office due to advanced age and ill health. A fantasy if ever there was one, we thought. But that year, life would imitate art: Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm attempted to transform The Man into The Woman, when she became the first black woman to run for president in the Democratic Party. She received 152 first-ballot votes at the 1972 Democratic National Convention. Then in 1988 Jesse Jackson got 1,219 delegate votes at the Democratic convention, 29 percent of the total, coming in second only to the nominee, Michael Dukakis.
The award for prescience, however, goes to Jacob K. Javits, the liberal Republican senator from New York who, incredibly, just a year after the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, predicted that the first black president would be elected in the year 2000. In an essay titled "Integration from the Top Down" printed in Esquire magazine in 1958, he wrote:
"What manner of man will this be, this possible Negro Presidential candidate of 2000? Undoubtedly, he will be well-educated. He will be well-traveled and have a keen grasp of his country's role in the world and its relationships. He will be a dedicated internationalist with working comprehension of the intricacies of foreign aid, technical assistance and reciprocal trade. . . . Assuredly, though, despite his other characteristics, he will have developed the fortitude to withstand the vicious smear attacks that came his way as he fought to the top in government and politics . . . those in the vanguard may expect to be the targets for scurrilous attacks, as the hate mongers, in the last ditch efforts, spew their verbal and written poison."
In the same essay, Javits predicted both the election of a black senator and the appointment of the first black Supreme Court justice by 1968. Edward Brooke was elected to the Senate by Massachusetts voters in 1966. Thurgood Marshall was confirmed in 1967. Javits also predicted the election to the House of Representatives of "between thirty and forty qualified Negroes" in the 106th Congress in 2000. In fact, 37 black U.S. representatives, among them 14 women, were elected that year.
All in all, Sen. Javits was one very keen prognosticator. And when we reflect upon the characteristics that Javits insisted the first black president must possess—he must be well-educated, well-traveled, have a keen grasp of his country's role in the world, be a dedicated internationalist and have a very thick skin—it is astonishing how accurately he is describing the background and character of Barack Obama.
So what does Barack Obama's election portend for the future of race relations in America, and for African Americans in particular? I wish we could say that Barack Obama's election will magically reduce the number 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 Barack Obama as president of the United States of America means that "The Ultimate Color Line," as the subtitle of Javits' Esquire essay put it, 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 do not look like him.
How does that make me feel? Like I've always imagined my father and his friends felt back in 1938, on the day that Joe Louis knocked out Max Schmeling. But ten thousand times better than that. All I can say is "Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound."
Henry Louis Gates Jr.
5 November 2008
First published in The Root (www.theroot.com). Reprinted with permission.