On Tuesday night, as I stared disbelievingly at the TV through tired eyes, America voted in a man who has already become the voice of a generation.
Obama has won the race for the Presidency by making himself a symbol of hope for the future. The dark years of the Bush administration have been left behind and a new dawn has come for the American people – or so we dare to hope.
Despite the gloom of recession there is an inescapable optimism in the air. Obama has promised to “change the world”; his slogan, “Yes we can”, has fired the imagination of the American people and his oratory, intelligence and charisma have captured hearts and minds across the globe.
On the Daily Show on Wednesday night, Clarence Jones, the speech writer of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, said that Obama’s win heralded the advent of a “multiracial society in which people are ‘judged on the content of their character not the colour of their skin.'”
The son of the black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas, Obama embodies the complexities of America’s chequered history. Yet it is his mixed background that has allowed him to escape the legacy of slavery and racial stereotypes that continue to plague race-relations in the US today.
“At various stages in the campaign,” he said in his speech in Philidelphia, “some commentators have deemed me either “too black” or ‘not black enough.’”
“The issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through – a part of our union that we have yet to perfect.”
Tonight, Thursday evening, Professor Jennifer Hochschild, chair of African-American Studies as Harvard University, gave the 22nd Sir Robert Birley Memorial Lecture at City University on ‘The Shifting Politics of Multiracialism ‘Mark One or More’: Barack Obama and the American Racial Order’.
While the arrival of the first African-American president has been hailed as historic, Hochschild believes that traditional racial boundaries have been eroding for the last 30 years.
A poll in September 2007 found that 79 per cent of Americans approve of marriage between blacks and whites and 63 per cent thought that more Americans thinking of themselves as multiracial was a good thing.
Obama has not only managed to transcend racial boundaries, but overstep them altogether. In 2007 the New York Times ran an article with the headline A biracial candidate walks his own fine line. In 2008, another headline ran: When ‘the man’ is one of us. In a 2008 poll, most people asked said that Obama was neither “white or black, he’s a little of both”.
It will take more than a single figurehead to heal the wounds that run so deep in America. Obama’s election is the culmination of the hopes and fears of a people longing for change and to shape their own future. Yet the situation looks increasingly dire – half a million Americans have lost their jobs in the past two months – and many are worried that soon all our high hopes will come crashing to the ground.
In an interview with the Times earlier this month, the geneticist Steve Jones said: “History is made in bed, but nowadays the beds are getting closer together. The future’s brown”. Obama is living proof that the world is getting smaller and, hopefully, better.