victory so very sweet

Henry Louis Gates Jnr

Henry Louis Gates Jnr

We have all heard stories about those few magical transformative moments in African-American history, extraordinary ritual occasions through which the geographically and socially diverse black community - a nation within a nation - really moulds itself into one united body, determined to achieve one great social purpose and to bear witness to the process by which this grand achievement occurs.

The first time was New Year's Day in 1863 when tens of thousands of black people huddled together all over the North, waiting to see if Abraham Lincoln would sign the Emancipation Proclamation.

The second was the night of June 22 1938, the storied rematch between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, when black families and friends crowded around radios to listen and cheer as the Brown Bomber knocked out Schmeling in the first round.

The third was August 28 1963 when the Reverend Martin Luther King Jnr proclaimed to the world that he had a dream, in the shadow of a brooding Lincoln, peering down on the assembled throng, while those of us who couldn't be with him in Washington sat around our black-and-white televisions, bound together by King's melodious voice through our tears and with quickened flesh.

But given all of the racism to which black people were subjected, no one could actually envision a Negro becoming president - "not in our lifetimes" - our ancestors used to say.

When James Earl Jones became America's first black fictional president in the 1972 film, The Man, I remember thinking, "Imagine that!"

His character, Douglass Dilman, the president pro tempore of the senate, ascends to the presidency after the president and the speaker of the house are killed in a building collapse, and after the vice-president declines the office due to advanced age and ill health. A fantasy if ever there was one, we thought.

But that year life would imitate art: congresswoman Shirley Chisholm attempted to transform The Man into The Woman, becoming the first black woman to run for president in the Democratic Party.

She received 152 first-ballot votes at the Democratic National Convention. Then, in 1988, Jesse Jackson got 1219 delegate votes at the Democratic convention, 29 percent of the total.

The award for prescience, however, goes to Jacob K Javits, the liberal Republican senator from New York who, incredibly, just a year after the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, predicted that the first black president would be elected in 2000.

In his essay Integration from the Top Down, published in Esquire magazine in 1958, he wrote: "What manner of man will this be, this possible Negro presidential candidate of 2000?

Undoubtedly, he will be welleducated. He will be well-traveled and have a keen grasp of his country's role in the world and its relationships. He will be a dedicated internationalist with working comprehension of the intricacies of foreign aid, technical assistance and reciprocal trade.

"Assuredly, though, despite his other characteristics, he will have developed the fortitude to withstand the vicious smear attacks that came his way as he fought to the top in government and politics . those in the vanguard may expect to be the targets for scurrilous attacks, as the hate mongers, in the last ditch efforts, spew their verbal and written poison."

Javits also predicted both the election of a black senator and the appointment of the first black supreme court justice by 1968. Edward Brooke was elected to the senate by Massachusetts voters in 1966. Thurgood Marshall was confirmed in 1967.

Javits also predicted that the house of representatives would have "between 30 and 40 qualified Negroes" in the 106th congress in 2000. In fact, there were 37 black US representatives, among them 12 women.

When we consider the characteristics that Javits insisted the first black president must possess, it is astonishing how accurately he is describing the background and character of Barack Obama.

I wish we could say Obama's election will magically reduce the numbers of teenage pregnancies or the level of drug addiction in the black community.

I wish we could say that what happened this week will suddenly make black children learn to read and write as if their lives depended on it, and that their high school completion rates will become the best in the country. I wish we could say that these things are about to happen, but I doubt that they will.

But there is one thing we can proclaim today, without question: that the election of Obama as president of the US means that The Ultimate Color Line, as the subtitle of Javits' essay put it, has, at long last been crossed.

It has been crossed by our very first postmodern Race Man, a man who embraces his African cultural and genetic heritage so securely that he can transcend it, becoming the candidate of choice to tens of millions of Americans who do not look like him.

How does that make me feel? Like I've always imagined my father and his friends felt back in 1938, on the night Louis knocked out Schmeling. But ten thousand times better than that.

All I can say is Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound!

lThe writer is a a celebrated American public intellectual and director of the WEB Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University. This article first appeared in