I’m sure I should have blogged yesterday about the election, if I were going to do it at all. But I was drained — drained from excitement, happiness, even crying when the outcome was clear, and at other times, too.
And while I’ve read so many stories about reactions to what happened, I can’t resist one of my own. This morning I went down from my NY apartment to buy newspapers, as I do every morning I’m there. At the local deli, I bought the Times and the Daily News. The guy behind the counter — Ethiopian, I think — said hello, as he and I do, and asked me how I was. “I’m good,” I said. And then, unable to resist, pointing at the Daily News front page on the counter in front of me, with a photo of Obama and a headline about hope, I said, “I’m happy about this!” The guy gave me a gigantic grin. “About this!” he said, agreeing.
As I left, I turned around and saw him. He was grinning at me even more, waving his hands above his head. “Happy about this!” he said. “Happy about this!”
On election night, the moment all the networks called it — about four seconds, I thought, after the polls closed in the far-west states — Anne and I saw the discussion change. No more stats, no more analysis of voting trends. Instead, on every network (except Fox), everyone began talking about what this meant for history. Black commentators, and even black reporters, shed their objectivity, and talked simply as themselves. (While on Fox, Karl Rove and others were previewing every bad thing they thought Obama would soon do.) Awe and joy poured from our TV.
At one point, I saw old-line black leaders, Al Sharpton among them, linking arms, singing “We Shall Overcome.” Now, nobody should misunderstand what I’m going to say. I sang “We Shall Overcome” myself, in the ’60s, with linked arms, more times than I could count. I was at the march on Washington when Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. I understand the deep feeling in the song, and I know that for anyone black who’s my age, or Al Sharpton’s it has a deeper meaning — and Obama’s election even more so — than it can ever have for me.
But still I thought, “This is the past.” While the future was everybody on the street, in Times Square, in front of the White House, in cities all across America, and all across the world — black, white, Asian, Hispanic, young, old, everybody you could think of (I’ll bet including even some Republicans), everyone together. That’s a moment prepared by Morgan Freeman as the president in a movie; black lawyers, judges, doctors on TV; young people surveyed in the 1990s, who watched the same TV shows whether they were black or white (while older people made different choices, associated with their race); mixed audiences at hiphop shows (really noticeable when I was a pop critic in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and only at Prince and hiphop shows were audiences truly mixed; at a Luther Vandross show, by contrast, I might be the only white person, and at a Springsteen show maybe the only black person in the arena would be Clarence Clemons). The feeling that I’m getting now is that, whatever the future’s going to bring, we’re all in it together.
One more thought. As — choking up — I watched Obama give his Grant Park speech, I thought the age of irony was over. I remember realizing, late in the ’80s, that people in their 20s then didn’t have the optimism people of my generation had when we were young. They’d been burned, I understood, from (among much else) the failure of the ’60s, which didn’t bring as much change as everybody thought it would. As time went on, this got much worse. Irony became the main line of our younger culture. And why shouldn’t people be ironic? What promise did we have that things could change?
Then, in the past five years or so, I began to think that there would be a change, that a new generation would emerge, hopeful and determined, ready to fight for something new. And it happened. But I never thought that it could happen at the same time that a hopeful president emerged. In the ’60s, that at first was inconceivable. Presidents, we thought, were empty suits. Then came Eugene McCarthy, but he lost, and Robert Kennedy, but he was shot. And then presidents were empty suits again — that dismal choice in 1968, between Nixon and Hubert Humphrey. And they could hardly be imagined as anything else. (You understand that I’m exaggerating, not speaking of real politicians and the virtues they might have, but about how they looked from the perspective of the ’60s.)
And now comes Obama. We can believe he means it, means to bring us change. And the hope that rises, meeting him, is beautiful to see. The age of irony has ended.