Cultural symbols embedded in our collective history, the stories we tell about ourselves, and encoded through ritual have meaning. They have consequences.
And I think it goes without saying that for the better part of the past decade, we’ve been telling two disparate stories about ourselves: America is the greatest country on earth, and to question that fundamental assumption is akin to high treason; and the potential of America-as-a-work-in-progress is a great social experiment, but our country’s being run by folks whose moral and intellectual predispositions are at best lacking, at worst downright vile.
Let me clear. I do not mean to imply that tomorrow something miraculous will happen, that the the heavens will open and angels will start dancing on the heads of literal pins. What I mean is that we will be forced to changed our collective cultural narratives, our reference points, our symbols.
While everyone and my mother is breathlessly anticipating the inauguration of the first black president, and while the media is hyping the historical significance of this to the point where it’s getting dangerously close to losing all meaning, I’d like to remind everyone that this really is an important historical moment. I’d like to remind everyone to stop for a moment, on today of all days, and reflect on the history of race relations in this country. I’d like everyone to stop for a moment and remember that a mere one hundred fifty-two years ago, the United States Supreme Court decided that black folks were not entitled to the legal protections of white men because they could not be citizens. One hundred and fifty-two years is an incredibly small slice of history, relatively speaking. We’ve come a long way.
This does not mean that racism has been miraculously overcome. This does not mean that Dr. King’s dream has been fulfilled in its entirety. And I would argue that that promissory note has yet to be paid in full. But regardless of whatever shortcomings we may have as a nation, regardless of whatever injustices we still need to fight against, I know this much is true: that for once a majority of my fellow citizens decided to entrust their country, their lives, to someone of intelligence and good character, thereby rejecting the fear of the unknown.
This says worlds about us as a people. We’re prepared to venture forth into into that murky realm of possibility. Into that place where you’re not sure what can happen, and all you can do is trust that you can make good things come. This is no small thing. And regardless of what happens in the next hundred days, the next four years (the next eight?), and regardless of what President Obama is able to accomplish or what he isn’t, I’d like us all to remember that at least this once we were able to overcome fear and prejudice and accomplish something that would have been impossible just forty years ago; something that was literally illegal just a century and a half ago. No matter what happens, we must remember just this one thing.
That is the power of symbols, of cultural narratives. That we can point to this one thing as evidence of some new story we’ll tell about ourselves, to ourselves, to the rest of the world. I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I’m looking forward to being a witness to it.