January 20, 2009, when Barack Obama is sworn in as the 44th President of the United States will be an historic day for this country like no other. One could compare it to the Lincoln inauguration, coming at a time when the southern states were leaving the union and threatening the very existence of the nation; or to that of Franklin D. Roosevelt, at a low point in the nation’s economy. And, I believe that in that comparison it will still come out on top.
We are currently a nation divided in ways that are almost as dangerous to our long term political health as we were in the 1860s. We are divided liberal from conservative, Republican from Democrat, rich from poor, rural from urban; we have the red-blue divide; and we cannot seem to come to grips with the millions of immigrants in our midst. Economically, we are suffering almost as much as we did during the 1929 crash, with the added factor that our national economic meltdown is triggering a global economic crisis.
No, by any stretch this inauguration is an historic moment. It signals a sea change in American politics and social life; waiting only for the moment when we as a nation can elect a woman to lead us. It ends the myth that America is a white country; a persistent belief that has distorted our image at home and abroad for two centuries. When future teachers talk to their students about this moment in our history, I hope they will remind them of this.
Almost from the beginning, the new country that was to become the United States of America was multi-racial and multi-cultural. In addition to the unknown numbers of Native Americans who were here before the Europeans arrived, non-whites have played a role in this country’s history from its beginnings.
In 1528, Estebanico (also known as Estevan), a black slave, accompanied an expedition from Cuba led by Panfilo de Narvaez, in search of the Rio Grande. Estebanico was later commissioned by Don Antonio de Mendoza, Imperial Viceroy in Mexico, to guide an expedition through what is now the American southwest, in search of the famed golden cities of Cibola.
On the eve of the American Revolution, the population of colonial America was 2 ½ million of which 20 percent was black, slave and free. In many of the militias that fought the British, ten percent or more were freemen of color, or African slaves. Most of the ships of the new nation’s navy had black crew members.
This has been the pattern throughout our existence as a nation; a pattern that has often been ignored by those who would persist in the belief that somehow, God intended America to be a nation of White Europeans; and that others; Asian, black, Hispanic, and Native American were little more than bit players or stage props with no significant role in the country’s affairs.
For me, the historic significance of January 20, 2009 is that it finally perhaps puts a stake in the heart of that myth. Does this mean the end of racial politics in America? I fear not. For as long as people are people, differences will be noted and made a part of what we do and how we act. But, we have at last confronted a demon that has hovered over us far too long. We have shown that Americans can, acting in their own self-interest, put prejudice aside and elect a minority to be head of state (now if we can just do the same for the other half of the population we will really have matured).
Differences will continue to exist. There will, unfortunately always be prejudice and bigotry. But, perhaps we have finally reached a point in our development where these attitudes take a seat in the darkly lit back row of the theater and common sense can take center stage. Maybe this heralds the beginning of an era when we live, not in a white America or a non-white America, but a truly United States of America.
Causes Charles Ray Supports
The Nature Conservancy
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial