AFT Guild

Tears to Remember

By Judith Warner
November 6, 2008

On Wednesday, Nov. 5, 1980, my 10th-grade American history teacher started class by unfurling The New York Times. She pointed to its triple banner headline: “Reagan Easily Beats Carter; Republicans Gain in Congress; D’Amato and Dodd are Victors.”

“Save this paper,” she told us. “This is the start of a whole new era.”

And it was. An era of unbridled deregulation, wealth-enhancing perks for the already well-off, and miserly indifference to the poor and middle class; of the recasting of greed as goodness, the equation of bellicose provincialism with patriotism, the reframing of bigotry as small-town decency.

In short, it was the start of our current era. The Reagan Revolution was the formative political experience of my generation’s lifetime, like the Great Depression, the Second World War or Vietnam for those before us. And in its intellectual and moral paucity, in its eventual hegemony, these years shut down, for some of us, the ability to fully imagine another way.

I will admit that back in January, when Barack Obama, in his post-Iowa victory speech, spoke about the “cynics,” the “they” who said “this country was too divided, too disillusioned to ever come together around a common purpose,” he was talking about me.

I will admit that the call of “change” did not speak to me as an achievable goal.

Until it actually came.

On Wednesday, there was a run on newspapers, as voters rushed to grab a tangible piece of the history they’d made. My husband Max and I, unable to find extra copies, brought our own worn papers home to 8- and 11-year-old Emilie and Julia.

Sept. 11, the seismic event that we’d feared would forever form their political consciousness, shaping their world and constricting the boundaries of the possible, had actually been eclipsed, light blotting out darkness, the best of America at long last driving away the demons of fear. We wanted them to see that it was the end of an era.

“Look,” we said, pointing to the headline “Racial Barrier Falls.” “This is huge.”

We labored to make them understand that their world — art that day, and orchestra, and Baked Potato Bar at lunch — had irrevocably changed.

But how can you understand change when you’ve only known one way of being?

They were happy because we were happy. They rose to the occasion in that bemused way children do when adults tell them what they should feel. They were glad to be rid of George W. Bush and to be saved – for now – from the specter of Sarah Palin. (“It is not O.K. to say she’s an ‘idiot,’” I had snapped when they came home from school stoked by the mob. “Prove your case. Show, don’t tell.”)

They’d had, like many D.C. children, more than their share of politics. After first following the country into battle against the all-purpose boogeyman Saddam Hussein, they’d become antiwar. They had opinions on tax policy and spoke angrily about the “wealth gap.” In the past election year, they’d been fired up about the woman thing, in all its pretty girl versus smart girl iterations; in fact, they and their friends had remained hard-core Hillaryites long after their moms had moved on.

But the race thing? The groundbreaking immensity of the election of our country’s first African-American president?

“You’re being racist,” Emilie had said when I made a comment about how particularly earth-moving this election was for black voters. “Why should it matter if people are black or white?”

Theirs has often looked to me like a world drained of meaning. Girl power put to the service of selling Hannah Montana. Feel-good inclusiveness that occulted the very real conflicts, crimes and hatreds of history.

It isn’t easy to let go of the past to embrace something new, to risk heartbreak on the chance of the world’s actually having changed.

Or at least, it hasn’t been easy for me. But it comes naturally to some. Like the hundreds of George Washington University students who gathered in front of the White House on Tuesday night, cheering and screaming and shouting their goodbyes to the political era of their youth.

“Bliss it was to be alive, but to be young was very heaven,” Max emailed me, paraphrasing William Wordsworth on the French Revolution, at 11:30 p.m. on election night, after leaving his desk to walk among the revelers downtown. I, home with the kids, was in bed, sleeping the drugged sleep of an alcohol-abstaining migraineuse after drinking half a glass of celebratory champagne.

Colin Powell did not dance for joy over Obama’s victory; he wept.

“Look what we did. Look what we did,” he said, puffy-faced, red-eyed, fighting back more tears on CNN. “He’s won. It’s over.”

David Dinkins was similarly solemn. “Things do change. There is a God. They do get better,” said the mayor who presided over New York City at a time of toxic racial tensions.

Obama, too, resisted giddy gladness on Tuesday night. But he did proclaim an end to the world as we’ve known it for far too long.

“To those who would tear the world down: we will defeat you,” he promised. “This is our moment. This is our time.”

The glory of Barack Obama is that there are so many different kinds of us who can claim a piece of that “our.” African-Americans, Democrats, post-boomers, progressives, people who rose from essentially nowhere and through hard work and determination succeeded beyond their parents’ wildest dreams are the most obvious.

But there are also people who respect intelligence and good grammar. People who see their spouse as their “best friend,” as Barack called Michelle on Tuesday night. People whose children have the same knowing look as Sasha and Malia, who are probably more excited about their puppy than about their father’s presidency.

Two images will forever stay in my mind to mark this epoch-breaking Election Day. One is that of Jesse Jackson’s face, drenched in tears, in Chicago’s Grant Park on Tuesday evening.

And the other is a photo that ran in The Times on Wednesday. In it, a black mother and daughter sit on the floor of a church in Harlem. The mother, Latrice Barnes, having heard of Obama’s victory, is doubled up in tears; her daughter, Jasmine, is reaching a tentative hand up to soothe her. To me, she looks like the future, reaching out to heal the past.
At the First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2008, Latrice Barnes, right, is comforted by her daughter Jasmine Redd, 5. (David Goldman for The New York Times)

It is, I suppose, in part a matter of temperament, whether one shouts or weeps at happy transformative moments. But I also think it’s a matter of what has come before. The young people joyfully frolicking in front of the Bush White House never knew the universe whose passing was marked by Obama’s victory and Jackson’s tears.

This moment of triumph marks the end of such a long period of pain, of indignity and injustice for African-Americans. And for so many others of us, of the trampling and debasing of our most basic ideals, beliefs that we cherished every bit as deeply and passionately as those of the “values voters” around whose sensibilities we’ve had to tiptoe for the past 28 years.

The election brought the return of a country we’d lost for so long that it was almost forgotten under the accumulated scar tissue of accommodation and acceptance.

For me, this will be the enduring memory of election night 2008: One generation released its grief. The next looked up confusedly, eager to please and yet unable to comprehend just what the tears were about.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company