Magazine article The New Yorker


Magazine article The New Yorker


Article excerpt

Slaves--men of West African origin branded with Christian monikers like Tom, Peter, Ben, Harry, and Daniel--helped build the White House. Three were on loan from its chief architect, James Hoban. Construction began in 1792, and slaves worked as sawyers, quarrymen, carpenters, stonemasons, brickmakers. Such was the fabric of the new republic: twelve American Presidents owned slaves, eight of them while in office.

After emancipation and the Civil War, a handful of black men won seats in Congress, but, as the spirit of Jim Crow overwhelmed the promise of Reconstruction, white supremacy regained its hold. On January 29, 1901, the last of those black congressmen, George H. White, of North Carolina, stood in the well of the House and prophesied the miracle of reconciliation and justice:

This, Mr. Chairman, is perhaps the Negroes' temporary farewell to the American Congress but let me say Phoenix-like he will rise up some day and come again. These parting words are on behalf of an outraged, heart-broken, bruised and bleeding, but God-fearing people. . . . The only apology I have for the earnestness with which I have spoken is that I am pleading for the life, the liberty, the future happiness, and manhood suffrage for one-eighth of the entire population of the United States.

On January 20th, an African-American family will take occupancy of the White House. The incoming President's father was Kenyan, his mother a Kansan. The future First Lady's great-great-grandfather Jim Robinson worked as a slave on the Friendfield Plantation, in Georgetown, South Carolina, and is thought to be buried there in an unmarked grave. The election of Barack Hussein Obama represents the culmination of the processes predicted by Representative White, forces that accelerated with the rise, in 1955, of the Second Reconstruction--the civil-rights movement--and the election and the appointment thereafter of hundreds of African-Americans to public office. It is cause not for self-congratulation but for celebration nonetheless. There are many things that the Inauguration of Barack Obama will not mean--the complete eradication of racial prejudice; the disappearance of injustices of history still made manifest in the everyday statistics of employment, education, and incarceration--but it can only instill in the American people a sense of possibility and progress.

Barack Obama was not elected the forty-fourth President based on the depth of his legislative achievements or on the length of his public service. John McCain and Hillary Clinton were the "experience" candidates. Rather, Obama projected an inspiring message, a "narrative," of change at a moment when so much in American life--the economy, the environment, national security, health care--is in such parlous condition that, for many voters, political familiarity seemed less a source of solace than a form of despair. During the campaign, Obama embodied novelty and a broader American coalition, and everything we heard about his temperament--as a community organizer in Chicago, as a president of the Harvard Law Review, as a legislator, as a campaigner--spoke of someone who, in contrast to the outgoing, faith-based President, possessed a gift for rational judgment and principled compromise.

Now there remains only the occasion of Obama's Inaugural Address before he will put to the test his capacity to reconcile forces and historical actors far beyond his experiences in Cambridge, Hyde Park, Capitol Hill, and Oahu. As if the hydra-headed economic disaster and the heightened tension between nuclear Pakistan and nuclear India were not enough to quicken the pulse, the Bush era is ending, and the Obama era is opening, with yet another conflagration in the most intractable, faith-dazed, and history-inflamed spot on earth. …

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