By the 1930s, it was already a cliché. This, from a 1939 article about Howard Thurman in The Crisis, the distinguished African American theologian whom I have been spending a great deal of time writing about as of late, on his many engagements to speak at white colleges “In most of the engagements filled by Howard Thurman, he is “the only Negro” or “the first Negro” (with apologies for these overused terms.)” But anyone who writes about the history of African American achievement in this country will reuse the phrase again and again. In some ways, the easiest barrier to breach in the ending of racial discrimination in this country was recognizing persons of extraordinary talent and ability. (In comparison to say, the tangled questions of inner city poverty and welfare.) To be sure, there was nothing easy or straightforward about minorities winning this basic right, but even before the combined efforts of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, there had been positive results. In 1949 William Hastie, a onetime colleague of Thurman at Howard was appointed the first federal judge. In 1967, in a selection in which the person chosen was as symbolically powerful as the act itself, Lyndon Johnson appointed Thurgood Marshall to the US Supreme Court. Appointments have been relatively easy; Johnson named Robert Weaver to the cabinet in 1965, and ever since there have been minority faces at the highest echelons of power. And even the current miserable excuse for a president saw fit to appoint two African Americans to what was traditionally seen as the most important cabinet position, secretary of state.
Elective success, certainly elective success outside of “black” districts, has been much more halting. Starting with Edward Brooke, elected senator from Massachusetts in 1966, few blacks have been elected to predominantly white constituencies. Black mayors were elected in New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago in the 1980s. So far, all of their successors have been white (and in one case, Latino.) Obama was only fourth or fifth black senator elected since Reconstruction. (And even Obama started on his path the usual way for black politicians, representing a predominantly black district in the Illinois legislature. )
But now, a black American has been elected to the highest position in the American government, and will become the de facto most powerful person in the world, and we are scrambling to understand what it means. Obama will become only the second person who is not a white Protestant male to become president. (We’re still working on that male part, and John Kennedy, the first non-Protestant, has now been succeeded nine anti-Papists, and the first non-Christian president is nowhere in sight, though Barack Hussein Obama is as close as we have ever come, with a non-Christian parent—perhaps now he can get his beautiful middle name back.) For Thurman citizenship was about possibility, about not being limited by artificial distinctions, about recognizing that a radical equality between all people was a precondition for true democracy. Today, if all barriers are not breached and eviscerated, I hope we can finally say that nothing is impossible.
A common comment in the past few days has been the wish expressed by many that their parents or grandparents had been alive to see this day. It is a wish perhaps most fervently expressed by blacks, but shared by many. I wish my father was around to see this, and that my mother was not so addled by dementia that she could understand what was happening, or that brother, a big Obama supporter, hadn’t decided to take his own life this past year. Indeed, I wish everyone was alive to see this event, Martin Luther King, Howard Thurman, Frederick Douglass, Denmark Vesey, back to the first slaves brought to Virginia in 1619, and every black man and woman who ever suffered under Jim Crow and slavery And for that matter, I would love to hear what Strom Thurmond, George Wallace, Robert E Lee, Thomas Jefferson (with or without Sally Hemmings) all the Founding Fathers had to say, and lets not forget Sitting Bull and Geronimo, Fred Korematsu and all the Japanese-Americans interned during World War II, and every one who has ever felt disinherited in America or wondered how the American experiment would turn out. It has always struck me as unfair that history is so asymmetrical. Everyone who studies American history from this day forward will know what happened on Nov 4th 2008. It is a pity that those who came before will never know what happened this week, though I would like to think that somewhere, their spirits are absorbing the news, with a shared incredulity.
There are no make-ups or do-overs in history, and no preordained happy endings, no restorations to an earlier status quo. Europe was the center of Jewish life for some 1900 years, until European Jewry was destroyed in six short terrible years. It will not be restored, nor will New York State be returned to the Iroquois, California to the Mexicans or Indians, or the descendants of the Africans ripped from their homeland during the slave trade to the mother continent. But for a moment, the United States seems to have reached what Thurman and many others have dreamed about, the realization of true and radical meaning of genuine citizenship.