Tonight my son stood where my father stood 40 years ago. He doesn’t know it yet– he is six weeks old -- but someday I will tell him. I will tell him that in 1968, his grandfather stood in Chicago’s Grant Park, in the middle of a morass of rage and confusion. I will tell him that his grandfather was part of a movement that fought to end a war that had begun a century earlier. I will tell him that his grandfather was not standing in this park in celebration, but in grim determination to set things right. I will tell him that his grandfather smelled the tear gas, saw the billy clubs swing, and left the park that night without resolution. And, I will tell him that, per the mayor’s declaration, 40 years ago, disorder was preserved.
When I get home I will call my father and tell him that his grandson stood where he once did. I will tell him that my son eagerly took it all in, that he will look at pictures of this multicolored crowd in history books in years to come and know he was there. I will tell my father that the Grant Park in which he once stood has gone from medium cool to way cool. That the great chasm ripped open by the politics of 1968 has begun to heal. That justice, which was once lost in a lakefront fog, is finally visible again.
I will tell my son that this is how America works. I will tell him that America’s history is a slow march towards the light. That we have taken steps forward with proclamations and steps backwards with nooses. That we have moved ahead with the freedom to choose, but that glass ceilings remain. That now, for the first time, same-sex couples are getting married; their love no less a gift from God and no more a choice than my love for his mother. I will tell him that America bested the tyrants of Europe and rallied in the wake of unspeakable horror, but that we have also chosen to risk our soldiers’ lives confronting false fears. I will tell him that for the last forty years, black men have been used in Presidential politics by those with ulterior motives – that they have been used in advertisements to scare and distract– but that tonight America beat back its prejudices and elected a black man President.
I will tell my son that his grandfather could not be here tonight because his Parkinson’s disease has turned long walks and big crowds into insurmountable barriers. I will tell him that we do not know if a cure will ever be found but that now, because of what has happened today, America’s scientists will get back to work. That good men and women will work weekends and miss dinner with their kids so that his grandfather may have a chance at a better life.
I will tell him that three years ago, the city where his grandfather now lives and where I grew up was almost lost forever. That a great wall of wind and water rose up and washed away whole families and neighborhoods. I will tell him that those in charge left New Orleans to rot for days before responding. I will tell him that government is not a magic wand and cannot solve all of our problems, but that his family’s adopted hometown is proof that the banality of indifference, of detachment and of privilege has consequences. I will tell him this is why voting matters. I will tell him this is why, every year, we pray for those who have perished by water.
After the speeches are done and the crowd fades away, I will tell my son not to expect the impossible. I will tell him that happy as we are tonight, one election does not change the world. That the agents of division who lost tonight will not go away, will not learn and will instead again try to pull America back down into their insecure and fearful crab barrel. I will tell him about the last time, when we literally elected a man from Hope, and all that was done to lay him low. I will tell him that this election is a beginning as well as an ending.
I will tell my son that the pride and trust we feel for Barack Obama do not make him more than human. In his time in office, he is not going to undo the past forty years of division, or even the last eight years of buffoonery. He is a man with flaws working in a system with limitations. I will tell him that America contains too many multitudes for one man – even this President – to control its destiny. I will tell him that good intentions are never enough, and that it will take hard work from everyone who cares about this country to set us on the right path again.
Barack Obama lost his inspiration, his grandmother, on Monday and took his children to vote with him on Tuesday. His wife spent untold weeks stumping on the campaign trail. His victory is, without a doubt, a family triumph. Tonight, my family’s story continues with my son, barely six weeks old, held aloft above a crowd of thousands, eyes wide with wonder. America’s progress is reflected in us, and we are a reflection of America’s progress. Tonight my son stood where my father did. He doesn’t know it yet, but someday I will tell him.