Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Audacity of Hope

As President-elect Barack Obama said in his speech at Grant Park in Chicago late last night, his was a victory for young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled.

It was that indeed; but please indulge me to linger on images of what Obama’s election meant for African Americans. I am not black but I remember the fifties and sixties in the South and in Chicago. I could only imagine what emotions were flooding through Jesse Jackson in the crowd at Grant Park, tears streaming down his face. I too wept as I heard John Lewis recall, “Some gave their lives and some of us gave a little blood to make this night happen.”

And then, as Obama began to speak, he let the image of a 106 year old black woman be the paradigm for the change that is possible.

This election had many firsts and many stories that will be told for generations. But one that's on my mind tonight is about a woman who cast her ballot in Atlanta. She's a lot like the millions of others who stood in line to make their voice heard in this election except for one thing - Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old.

She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn't vote for two reasons - because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.

And tonight, I think about all that she's seen throughout her century in America - the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we can't, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes we can.

At a time when women's voices were silenced and their hopes dismissed, she lived to see them stand up and speak out and reach for the ballot. Yes we can.

When there was despair in the dust bowl and depression across the land, she saw a nation conquer fear itself with a New Deal, new jobs and a new sense of common purpose. Yes we can.

When the bombs fell on our harbor and tyranny threatened the world, she was there to witness a generation rise to greatness and a democracy was saved. Yes we can.

She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that "We Shall Overcome." Yes we can.

A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change. Yes we can.

America, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do. So tonight, let us ask ourselves - if our children should live to see the next century; if my daughters should be so lucky to live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper, what change will they see? What progress will we have made?

This is our chance to answer that call. This is our moment. This is our time - to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American Dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth - that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes we can!
We will need all of the “Yes-we-can!” spirit we can muster in these days ahead as Obama has to lead us in confronting a plethora of problems unlike any other in our nation’s history. As he reminded us earlier in the speech,

I know you didn't do this just to win an election and I know you didn't do it for me. You did it because you understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead. For even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime - two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century. Even as we stand here tonight, we know there are brave Americans waking up in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan to risk their lives for us. There are mothers and fathers who will lie awake after their children fall asleep and wonder how they'll make the mortgage, or pay their doctor's bills, or save enough for college. There is new energy to harness and new jobs to be created; new schools to build and threats to meet and alliances to repair.
But there is something about this man who had the audacity to hope for himself and his nation. “Hope,” he well knows, is not supine; it is a call to action and requires fearless daring. Although I haven’t heard him mention his name, Obama understands what St. Augustine (354-430) meant by the “two daughters of hope,” one named Anger and the other Courage: anger so that what cannot be, may not be; and courage, so that what must be, will be. That’s why the Obama campaign was successful.

Two days before the election, when Frank Rich was musing about Obama and the old movie, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” he concluded,

...we are a people as practical as we are dreamy. We’ll soon remember that the country is in a deep ditch, and that we turned to the black guy not only because we hoped he would lift us up but because he looked like the strongest leader to dig us out.
If Obama is to dig us out, those of us who supported his candidacy are going to have to pick up shovels and use them. We’ll be well served if we get better acquainted with those two daughters of Hope.

- Milo

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