In 1964, in the small paper mill town of Kaukauna, Wisconsin, where I grew up, the local high school participated with an inner city school in Milwaukee to do a production of "In White America," Martin Duberman's documentary play. The play was performed in my town for several nights and then at the Milwaukee high school. The kids from Milwaukee stayed with their counterparts in Kaukauna and vice versa. My oldest sister was in the cast.
We had seen the news from the south. We had watched the dogs and the fire hoses on tv. We knew about the bombings and the murders. Few of us had ever seen a black person, certainly not in the streets of our town. I know that my mother and father talked long about participating. Would they be putting their children at an unacceptable risk? This was deer hunting country. People had guns.
I remember watching the local news, and have a particularly vivid memory of one smiling young man being interviewed, saying, "Yeah, I'm a racist. They shouldn't be here." It was one thing for me to see on tv what was happening in a remote part of the country. It was something else entirely to watch an interview that had been filmed three blocks from where I lived. Everyone in town knew which homes those black kids were staying in.
The play was a great success, in both cities. When it was over, my parents invited the family of the girl who had stayed with us up for a backyard party. She had younger brothers about the ages of Dan and myself and I have wonderful deeply cherished memories of that afternoon, laughing and running and having a great time with our newfound friends. It was one of the most powerful and formative experiences of my young life and, even writing this, I feel the tears well up with pride for my siblings and my parents and the leaders at the local high school who took this one small step to be a part of the great struggle that our country was going through.
I was pretty pragmatic about this election. I admired both Hillary and Obama through the primaries, and never made a choice between them. I knew I'd be happy with either one as the nominee. (I have an aversion to open primaries, so I never had to actually decide which lever to pull). Early on, I was convinced that Hillary would take it, that Obama simply didn't have the political experience to withstand the tortures of a modern presidential campaign. I guess he showed what a community organizer can do.
But the emotional enormity of what the country had done didn't really hit me until Tuesday evening, when I watched that family stand on the stage in Grant Park and thought of them as the family in the White House. As President Obama's re-election campaign heats up in the spring of 2012, Josephine will have just turned seven. He will be the first president that she's ever been aware of. It will be normal. It will be unremarkable for her that a black man is the President of the United States.
On November 6th, Judith Warner published a wonderful essay in the New York Times. She wonders if her daughters, age 8 and 11, will be able to appreciate the enormity of what the country has done, if they can really understand where all those tears came from on election night, the wonderful shock that so many of us felt to realize, finally, what had actually happened.
I don't know about her kids -- at their ages they're already pretty tuned into what's going around them. They may not feel it the way the adults do, but they know that it's something pretty momentous.
For my entire life, the question has been hanging in the air, "Will America ever be ready to elect a black man president?" Ten days ago, that was still a real question. Now it's dust.
For Josie, it'll just be history.