It has been almost two weeks since the general elections and pundits are still buzzing about Barack Obama’s victory. Like so many people, I spent the whole evening on November 4, watching the returns, then Senator McCain’s gracious concession speech and, finally, well past my bedtime, the President-Elect.
Yes, it truly was an historic moment. I don’t really qualify as a politics junkie – not even close – but I have stayed in touch with various news programs since then. Obviously, one of the regular themes has been what the election means for African Americans, but, more importantly, for the whole nation. A very long, very large burden is finally, mercifully lifting.
As I watched the party in Grant Park, Chicago, the TV cameras returned again and again to Jesse Jackson and Oprah Winfrey. The whole world could see both of them alternatively laughing and crying. Although Jackson appears to be beyond his prime in terms of prominence in the news, Oprah Winfrey most definitely is not. She is one of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world, much less the United States. (Some of you may think I’m too prone to overstatement here, but think about it: her wealth, her reach via TV, her book club, for goodness’ sake!) And there she was, shedding tears of joy.
Last Spring I attended the United Methodist General Conference. Worship is always incredibly well-done at this international two-week event. I may not have the details of this memory exactly right, but one moment stands out. A combined choir of two African American United Methodist churches sang at one of the evening worship services. They sang a number well-known among Black churches, with lyrics characteristic of black gospel: oppression, struggle, faith and perseverance. I noticed how our African American sisters and brothers sang – not merely with enthusiasm (because they like the music) – but with a level of feeling that is hard to describe. They felt that song deep in their collective soul.
Affluent, powerful, middle-class black people singing a song about oppression and deliverance; singing with a pathos and a poignance that caught my attention.
I did not grow up in the lap of affluence or privilege. My parents were Depression-era western Kansas, hard-scrabble cowfolk from pioneer stock. My Dad became a preacher and never made more than minimum salary. We pinched a lot of pennies when I was a kid and I often felt embarrassed about not having stuff other kids had, even the kids who lived out in the middle of nowhere.
But, watching Oprah crying on national TV; listening to the songs of Zion sung like only people who know the sting of racial hatred can sing, I’m telling you, I got it. As close as an over-educated white boy can get it, I got it. You can have a billion dollars in the bank. You can have fame beyond description. You can have a modicum of acceptance on the basis of education or wealth. And you can still feel the emptiness of that something, so basic to human community, that is still denied.
Far beyond Republicans and Democrats, far surpassing party power, beyond whether or not they’ll get a filibuster-busting super-majority in the Senate, this election is The Breakthrough. That something-so-basic is no longer denied. Or deniable.