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Where Were You on November 4, 2008?

Days of infamy sear our psyches. We never forget. “Where were you when JFK was shot?” In Indiana volunteering in a home for the mentally ill ... “When the assassin’s bullet found MLK?” In Philly going door to door for the Welfare Rights Organization” ... “On 9-11?” Approaching New York City on a train.

But what about those days that positively remake our sense of ourselves? Certainly, the fall of the Berlin Wall is one, yet I’m pretty fuzzy on where I was that day.

But November 4, 2008 will never get fuzzy. It is my very first, unforgettable day of public joy. After 9-11 we found ourselves speaking to strangers as we sought comfort. This week, I find myself speaking to strangers as my joy just can’t be contained.

I’m convinced that my grandchildren will view 11-4-08 as more transformative than any of our nation’s days of infamy. I say this not because I’m counting on any particular policies Barack has promised us, but because of deeper changes.

First, Barack Obama’s victory stands not only as a liberating milestone for people of color. It is a step toward human liberation — further freeing us all to benefit from the gifts of all. Discrimination in any form is a burden for all, depriving everyone. And with the success of this young black man, it seems we’re catching on — in the nick of time.

As I watched weeping on Tuesday night, I recalled my mom, Ina Moore, who in the segregated Texas of my childhood helped integrate our church. In a 1960 unpublished essay about her friend Bessie, whom she loved dearly but with whom she couldn’t sit down for coffee at the local diner, my mom wrote:

“I have learned that I, too, wear a tag of identification, classifying me as “white” first, an individual human being second. And I have learned to read the fine print underneath the label which says, “YOU are a forger and a thief. You have forged a pass to all the better seats. You have falsified a deed to all the fertile valley, leaving for others only the barren, eroded hillsides. You have stolen the dignity of other human beings.

My I.D. hangs heavy around my neck. I’ll be glad when I can take it off.”

Now, 48 years later, I can feel that I.D. tag beginning to drop away.

Next, the Obamas are real. Sure, some have shouted “cult of personality,” but Obama is not the mythic Kennedy, the bigger-than-life Johnson, the ever-charming Bill Clinton. In retrospect, they seem like caricatures we co-invented. They’re not people like us. Now, imagine the implications of having a real human being and a real human family in the White House: If they are real people like us, and they are making history, maybe we real human people are making history, too. “I feel empowered!” a thirteen-year old in our family shouted over the phone to me as victory became certain Tuesday night.

Watching them, we’re reminded moment to moment that what real people do matters.

And our new First Family carries another vital message: that of true male and female partnership, that of a family engaged with and enjoying each others’ lives; that of honesty, playfulness and deep love. If the neuroscientists are right that our brains’ “mirror neurons” fire as though we are acting out what we observe, then our collective psyches will be actively absorbing empowering relational models, quite unlike those offered by the Bushes, Clintons, or Kennedys. And I’ll bet that long after they leave the White House, Barack and Michelle and their girls will be shaping us.

Finally, implicit in Obama’s campaign slogans and speeches has been one consistent message that is key to the success of any community organizer: “The answer is not in my hands. It is up to you.” Our problems are simply too complex and pervasive to be solved from the top down, Obama knows. They require huge changes in all of us, and most of us change not when we feel coerced but when we engage and feel our voices are heard.

In Santa Fe, N.M. days before the election, everywhere I saw signs reading: “Obamanos!“ — a Spanglish term meaning “Let’s go Obama.” For me, it carries with it a “let’s move forward together” spirit — the opposite of the “I’m the Decider” mentality, which positions the White House as a sort of executive bunker. Democracy presumes our involvement. It presumes mutual accountability. And that presumes transparency, listening, and respect.

The Obamanos spirit is the spirit of democracy itself: No longer something done to us or for us, democracy becomes what we ourselves create: a culture of engagement drawing us out of our isolation and into an ongoing — no longer once-in-a-lifetime — experience of public joy.

For we can shed cynicism and despair only as we realize our common capacity to become the public problem solvers our world so desperately needs.

So, get ready, reach out to others — then, Obamanos!

— Frances Moore Lappé, with her daughter Anna Lappé, leads the Small Planet Institute in Cambridge. Author of 16 books, her most recent is Getting a Grip: Clarity, Creativity and Courage in a World Gone Mad.

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