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Harlem’s joy over President-elect Obama

Published Nov 13, 2008 7:26 PM

Word on the street on election night was “Yes, we can!” and “Yes, we did!” These and other chants were echoed at various venues throughout the village of Harlem, New York City.

Word of the Obama victory was accompanied by noisemakers, cheering, handclapping, honking horns, singing, soul food and the electric slide. In front of the famous Sylvia’s soul food restaurant near 125th St., a tall ice sculpture spelled out Obama’s name.

There were also tears, tears of joy following the election of the first Black U.S. president—a day which most said they thought they’d never see. There were also tears of sadness for those who didn’t live to see this day, including those who endured hardship, violence and even death in attempting to win and exercise their right to vote. And there were prayers of giving thanks.

Conversations varied. There were concerns expressed regarding the significance and meaning of Barack Obama’s election, and a varying consensus of opinions. There were expressions of shock and disbelief, as well as statements of “See, I told you so.” People expressed hope for the prospects of a change in race relations and a better future.

Watching the election results on TV or on large outdoor screens, as one-by-one the voting polls closed and states reported their numbers, was reminiscent of the original Watch Night, New Year’s Eve, in 1863. That was the occasion when enslaved Africans gathered and began their watch at 11 p.m. awaiting the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln, which occurred on Jan. 1.

One could see anxiety, fear and shared doubt on the faces in Harlem, intermingled with the audacity to hope. And at 11 p.m. here in New York on Nov. 4, 2008, millions of African Americans and others throughout the African Diaspora finally exhaled when Obama was declared the winner. The dream of a future existence without the stranglehold of racism seemed closer to becoming reality. There’s need to ensure that those hopes not be dashed.

The souls and spirits of W.E.B. Du Bois’ Black folks soared that night. “The problem of the 20th century,” stated Du Bois, “is the problem of the color line.” He spoke of how long overdue the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement were, and how difficult the struggle for civil and human rights had been and would continue to be politically and economically.

In the 21st century, a world without a color line, unfortunately, has yet to be achieved. And so, the watch and vigilance must be eternal. Obama is being described as a redemptive figure. It is also being said that his election constituted a nonviolent grassroots revolution. If so, further life will have to be breathed into the revolution to sustain it.

In the sobering days following Obama’s Jan. 20, 2009, inauguration, people worldwide will be watching. Expectations will be high, maybe too high. There will also be skepticism related to uncharted waters. To be sure, U.S. domestic and foreign policy will certainly be closely scrutinized.