Sunday, November 9, 2008

Changing History

The headline in the local paper is “Changing History.” And that is of course just what Barack Obama’s election has done. Epochal events not only change the present, they change the past. This happens all the time. In 1953, Queen Elizabeth, good Queen Bess, scourge of the Catholics, and whose Royal Endowment for the Arts supported a few struggling playwrights, got a new name, some 350 years after her death, Queen Elizabeth I. Less trivially, in 1939, the Great War became World War II (I’ve long wondered why it wasn’t called Great War II.) There is a whole era in American history, the ante-bellum period, that is defined by what came after it. Does German history from Luther onwards somehow naturally culminate the disaster that began in 1933? Does colonial American history ineluctably lead to July 4th, 1776? And will we able to, ever again, write about African American history without our knowledge of what took place on Nov 4th, 2008? I don’t think so.

Obama has not only changed the world we live in, and the world we will live in. He has changed the world we used to live in. It will be far more difficult for the detractors of the civil rights movement, on whatever side of the political aisle, to deny that was wrought by Howard Thurman in India, by Martin Luther King in Montgomery, by the Brown decision, by the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, were so much window dressing for gullible liberals, leaving the basic racial problem unaddressed and untouched. By the same measure, I hope, by providing a definitive and emphatic statement on what has been accomplished, it will shine an even brighter light on the remaining gap, the yawning abyss, between our ideals and the reality. No one will ever be able to say again, when any racial problem is discussed, that solving it is impossible.
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