When I was twelve years old, I went to school on another January 20th. It was 1993, and William Jefferson Clinton had just been elected president. I had been alive through two other presidents, old white men who grew grizzled in office. The first of those two men was inaugurated on a winter day seven months before my first birthday, and then again, seven months before my fifth. The second of those men stood to take his presidential vows during the winter that I was seven. If I watched any of those three inaugurations, I don't remember doing so. Either I was young or my parents imparted on me the great sadness inherent in allowing the country to tack right after so many years of progress.
But in 1993, I was in my social studies class when my teacher wheeled in a television. We had spent the fall conducting a mock election and learning about our candidates. Actually, we hadn't been allowed to vote; we'd be assigned candidates for research and my candidate had been Ross Perot. In my case, there wasn't much to look up.
I remember a few things about that day. I remember that Chelsea Clinton was just about my age standing up there in the cold with her father. I remember learning who Maya Angelou was for the first time as she stood to recite presidential poetry. Mostly, I remember feeling that this president was different from the presidents I'd lived through before. He was white and Christian, yes, but he was also young and dynamic and possessed of a certain rare enthusiasm I had never before seen in politics. It was a very American moment for a little girl who really knew nothing of the world and who felt, suddenly, proud of her country and of her country's moment of change.
One thing that did not cross my mind during that morning in 1993? I never once believed that it could be me up there, taking the oath for my country. Because despite the optimism I had for my America, I had also been imbued with reality. Women didn't become president. Jews didn't become president. Some of my classmates would never become president, either, because blacks didn't become president, not in the United States. There was a limitation on my optimism, even then, because despite how far my country had come there were barriers that remained unbreakable.
From apex to nadir, I watched President Clinton rise and fall and I watched another man, slimy, dishonest, lazy, inexperienced, and disinterested, take his place. I voted in my first presidential election in 2000, the same year that my Supreme Court took democracy out of the hands of the public and handed the presidency to George W. Bush. It was a sad day followed by more sad days, by the expanding knowledge that what was going on in the White House was far from diplomatic policy-making. The more time passed the more we learned that we were torturing prisoners in our country and abroad; we learned that the war we had been coerced into waging was nothing more than American muscle-flexing gone bad; we learned that constant and unrelenting deregulation would lead to a terrible market crash; we learned that the respect once given to us by foreign nations had been revoked due to our unethical and selfish behavior.
Those are mistakes for which we Americans are still--and will always be--accountable. It seemed unlikely, after so many years of so much ugliness, that this nation could ever come together to produce something worthwhile. But, as it turns out, we may have reversed our fortunes. Because the biggest blunders in American history--the acquisition of slaves, the decision to turn people into property, the consistent and unapologetic degradation of blacks starting at this country's inception--may be mitigated by one phrase: Yes We Can.
Electing Barack Obama does not excuse the American past, but it does prove that we are a country of progress and we are a country who continues to want greatness. I believed, when the President-Elect accepted the nomination for the democratic party in summer, that that dream remained an impossibility. I believed that the small-minded would prevail because eight years under President Bush has taught me that small-mindedness wields much power in a good world.
I did not trust that my fellow Americans would look past the color of Barack Obama's skin and see potential for a better future. And I was wrong. I was wrong about that and I was wrong to think that this moment, the product of so much work by so many other black people who came before, would go unnoticed. I was wrong to think that the emotional impact was solitary, or even that it would be nationwide. The election of this president touched everyone, in far-flung countries and far-flung states. The emotion of election day proved the perfect and long-awaited antithesis to the emotion of September 11, 2001; at last, we had something to laugh about.
Then again, America has always been full of surprises. As our 44th President once said in a speech, "In the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope." And I guess that residual hope that we all felt after eight years of exhaustion finally made an impact. We hoped, we worked, we prevailed. Today begins a new chapter of our history, a chapter where anything is possible, a chapter where any child can wake up and go to school and watch this inauguration and think: That could be me one day. Because this time it's true.