Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Relief, Joy, Hope, Tears

It’s been two weeks now since Barack Obama made history by becoming the first African-American to be elected US President. In the weeks before the election, I found it difficult to sleep. I spent hours checking the pollster sites, particularly those predicting the vote in Florida. The day of the election, after spending no more than 10 minutes at my polling place to vote, I was too full of nervous energy to concentrate on much of anything. So I went down to Obama headquarters, got a sign and went to the corner of Bumby and Colonial, near several shopping centers, and waved my sign shouting “Obama! Obama! Time for change, America!” punctuated by honking horns, a lot of thumbs up and a few birds. By 11:30 that night, we knew Obama had won and by midnight we knew Florida’s votes for the Democratic candidate would count this time.

I was surprised by my response to Obama’s victory speech, a speech marked by generosity of spirit, a realistic assessment of the enormous job he faces of cleaning up eight years of damage from the Bush team, and the sudden realization for many Americans captured by the cameras scanning the audience at Grant Park in Chicago that we had actually elected a black president. That realization was marked by tears on the faces of Jesse Jackson and Oprah Winfrey in the crowd that night. And suddenly, I felt my own heart erupting in a flood of tears as I watched Obama’s family and his new vice-president and wife come to the stage to congratulate the next president of the United States.

In the days since the election, the news and photos have poured in from all around the world. My lawyer buddy from New York sent a series of photos from around the world documenting the reaction of people hearing the news of Obama’s victory. In almost every photo I saw my own reactions: elation, shock, and tears. And even now, two weeks after the election results were announced and the hangovers of Wednesday, Nov. 6 had subsided, seeing the photos of that night's events can still bring a lump to my throat and a tightness in my chest.

I have asked myself what in this election has so deeply touched human beings around the world, what has produced the nearly universal response of tears. I know in part it is a sense of my countrymen and women finally realizing a milestone in – though hardly a conclusion to - our long, long fight against racism. My students cannot completely comprehend how astounding this is for a man who spent the first six years of his life in segregated schools, lived through desegregation and riots that left whole sections of America’s cities empty lots, taught in formerly all-black schools in ghettos and spent much of his career as a lawyer working with poor people, many of them people of color whose understanding of the justice system was that the burden of the laws applied to “just us.” Seeing a black man standing on that victory podium after growing up in a South of segregated water fountains, restrooms and dining rooms, in a Florida with miscegenation statutes on the books and a common sense that said “It will always be this way, just as G-d intended it” – well, that’s enough to bring a grown man to tears. Apparently, I was not alone.

But it took the comments of one of my students in a response to a film we saw in class yesterday to put it all into focus for me. As I read her paper, I felt my chest tighten, the tears welling in my eyes once again. Here’s what she said:

“I cried when Obama was elected as our next president, not only because it was such a relief from the debacle of Bush’s terms, but also because of the symbolic element. The US, a country that fought a civil war and spent many years steeped in bitter prejudice, had managed to elect a black man. I thought people had really grown desensitized and apathetic beneath Bush and I help out little hope that anyone would care enough to try to make a difference with this election. But the outcome really makes me optimistic about the future…”

Indeed. Relief in a president who can construct a sentence in proper English that makes sense. Relief that I am not embarrassed anymore when I go overseas to reveal that I am an American, a citizen of a country no longer led by a privileged frat boy cum cowboy who never grew up and nearly destroyed my country and a good chunk of the world in the process. Relief that the values I have always held dear as an American – justice, equality, opportunity for all – might yet replace the values of the last eight years – cynicism, privilege and fear mongering - values that my young student so eloquently noted seemed almost a foregone conclusion as recently as a year ago.

Along with relief, like my student, I am also daring ever so cautiously to hope once again. And what makes me most hopeful is the fact that this assessment came from a member of Gen Y, the Millenials, the students who stood in line up to 5 hours on election day with an 80% turnout at our campus precinct, who voted 60/40 for Obama and 60/40 against the Yes-on-Hate Amendment 2. It is these young women and men who may well end up spending their lives saving the world from the mess we’ve made of it. And they will have their work cut out for them. The people of California, Arizona, Arkansas and Florida gave notice in this same election that the next round of the culture war will be fought over whether people like my gentle spirited partner of 34 years and myself will be treated equally under the law.

But, for tonight I am hopeful. I am encouraged by the daringly optimistic insights of my college sophomore, whose voice unabashedly proclaims the hopes of an entire generation of young Americans in a mundane classroom writing assignment. Most of all, I am grateful for the privilege of being one of their teachers.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.

Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.


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