Opinion

Hope returned one November eve

“The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed the Hawaii Legislature in 1959, two years before Mr. Obama was born in Honolulu, and declared that the civil rights movement was aimed not just to free blacks but ‘to free the soul of America.’” – Nicholas Kristof, New York Times, Nov. 5, 2008.

Who knew we’d feel like this after Barack Obama was elected president of the United States of America? Who could have guessed the feelings we’d been holding in, and how it feels to have them released and relieved?

I heard someone describe the voting booth as somewhat akin to the confessional booth. Since in Kitsap County we don’t have voting booths, and the latter is in short supply, that may not be the most apt comparison for Bainbridge Island.

But, perhaps this is what it feels like to unchain your soul from shame, the shame that has lived in our collective DNA since before the beginning of this – now I dare say it – this great country of ours. I have a vibration in my chest and throat and I find I’m on the verge of tears, tears that started to fall when Pennsylvania was called for Barack Obama, soon to be the first African-American president.

Wednesday night the news showed a small black boy, standing in his school uniform, trying to tell his teacher and his classmates what this victory meant to him. He couldn’t finish saying, “I too can be anything I want,” because his tears kept him from speaking. The pundits on MSNBC didn’t lose their voices, but tears filled their eyes, too.

Tuesday was a quiet night on Bainbridge Island, as far as I saw. Maybe we were all in our homes, or with friends. Maybe Winslow Way filled up with marching, dancing crowds. If it did, I didn’t see it.

But all across the world, that’s just what happened. My daughter is in graduate school at UW. She said the students throughout the U-District poured out onto the streets, carrying banners and signs and life-sized cutouts of Barack Obama. Strangers were hugging each other.

Both of us are too young to remember VE day, but we’ve seen the photo from Times Square, the one with the soldier bending back the young woman in a spontaneous kiss. One young man texted his friends, “This is too big to stay inside. I’m going out to find myself a nurse!”

My daughter sent me a text that night. “We are liberated,” she wrote. She said she and her women friends, after the whooping and crying on election night, turned to each other and said what seems silly at first hearing, and even they felt self-conscious about saying it. “Now we can have children,” is what they said.

Do I think they would not have dared or chosen to become mothers if the election had gone the other way? No, biology trumps all, as they well know, scientists as they are.

But what they now dare to express, and what I’ve since heard from other people of her generation, is that their sense of displacement, of powerlessness, of shame in the actions of those in office, has been so profound that they despaired for our future. But, as Oprah’s T-shirt on Wednesday proclaimed, “Hope won.”

Who knew that a whole generation felt imprisoned? Who knew that Michelle Obama’s statement, the one that brought such criticism, “For the first time I feel really proud of my country,” would ring with such undeniable force of truth. More and more people are daring to say it.

This isn’t about party affiliation or policies. This is about American principles of decency, honor, respect for each other of whatever color, nationality, gender, or economic or sexual orientation. It’s about sacrifice for the good of the whole and it’s about hope for a better tomorrow.

It’s about acting out of our best selves. It’s about seeing a democratic election where the will of the majority can shout, “Enough!” and those voices can prevail.

If I may, I’d like to speak again of my daughter. Wednesday, walking to and from campus, she passed several African-American men. It was different than ever before. In every instance, they sought out each other’s eyes, met each other’s gaze without fear. The smiles they shared were smiles of recognition and celebration of the healing that has begun.

Who knew that this is what freedom feels like?

Eve Leonard is an island writer and real estate agent.

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