History was made last evening. Americans of all colors, ages, and backgrounds came out in record numbers and elected the first African American president. I must admit that I struggle to find the words to express my joy and excitement about this moment in our nation’s history. We face so many challenges in the days ahead, but right now – remembering the sacrifices of those who have come before us – I revel in the extraordinary power of “now.” It must be noted, though, that President-elect Obama has already signaled a change in the endgame. He urged us to understand that his election does not constitute the change we seek; instead, it only marks our chance to engage in the difficult work of saving this nation. And this is a particularly poignant message for religious communities throughout the United States. We must find the courage and the strength to work on behalf of the least of these – to give voice to the voiceless and to urge a message of love in a moment in such dire need of its healing power. In short, we must dare to lift our prophetic voices and to wrench our faiths from the hands of those who have become too comfortable with injustice. The real work begins now.
Again, history has been made. And it is precisely in our effort to understand the historical significance of this moment that we encounter, in all of his horror and beauty, our racial past. The election of Senator Obama does not, although many desperately believe it to be so, exorcise the demons of our history. His election only marks an occasion to confront honestly our tortuous journey to now. I am reminded of the powerful words of James Baldwin. He argued that the myth of America’s innocence shields the nation from the brutal facts of its own tortuous past. Attentiveness, then, to the blind spots in our national journey constitutes, at least for him, a constraint on American hubris and enables a qualified embrace of a nation that resolutely rejects him. History and how we invoke it matters a great deal. As Baldwin writes in “White Man’s Guilt”:
History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.
To recognize history’s presence in us then is to understand the absolute necessity of fingering its jagged edges in order, if just for a moment, to prick our frames of reference and to unsettle our established identities.
For Baldwin, and I agree, the past orients us appropriately to the tasks of self creation and of reconstructing American society.
In great pain and terror one begins to assess the history which has placed one where one is and formed one’s point of view. In great pain and terror because, therefore, one enters into battle with that historical creation, Oneself, and attempts to recreate oneself according to a principle more humane and more liberating; one begins the attempt to achieve a level of personal maturity and freedom which robs history of its tyrannical power, and also changes history…. But, obviously, I am speaking as an historical creation which has had bitterly to contest its history, to wrestle with it, and finally accept it in order to bring myself out of it.
These words, I believe, provide a blueprint for what we must now do as a nation. Race can not be swept away – even as we rejoice in this extraordinary moment. We must confront our nation’s history in all of its complexity and see how its imprint informs and shapes our choices. Confronting it allows us, at least for a moment, to break loose from “its tyrannical power” so that we may imagine ourselves and the nation anew. Last night made all of this possible in a way I could have never imagined. What an amazing moment…what an extraordinary opportunity. Revel and rest, for there remains much more work to do still.