IN DOROTHY B. Hughes’s 1963 suspense novel The Expendable Man, a young doctor drives from Los Angeles to Phoenix for his niece’s wedding. Along the way he picks up a teenage hitchhiker. Though he never makes an untoward gesture, he quickly becomes anxious to be free of her and eventually stakes her bus ticket and meal and drops her at a Greyhound station. She turns up murdered and the police come to question him, but the paranoia that we think is troubling him—that of an adult man giving a ride to a teenage girl—turns out to be rooted in something very different.
“A nigger doc driving a big white Cadillac brought Bonnie Lee to Phoenix,” says one of the cops and we understand that the young doctor (whom we’ve assumed to be white) isn’t paranoid at all: He’s simply black in America where, no matter how successful, sober, and moral you are, you’re never good enough.
America has just turned away from that the mindset with the election of Barack Obama. Outside my window in Brooklyn, as I write this in the early hours of November 5, people are still cheering and honking horns. A few hours before, I was among them, watching people in the street stopping traffic, dancing on taxi cabs, chanting, “Yes we did!” My eyes met a woman walking towards me with tears falling down her face, and we just instinctively reached for each other and hugged.
It may seem paltry-spirited to turn away from what the critic Lester Bangs, describing Elvis, once called “an erection of the heart.” But I believe that for Obama to be the president we want him to be, we have to remember how his victory scarcely seemed possible hours before he won it, how the polls seemed a comforting fiction we clung to in order to hide from our belief that America would never elect a black man president.
Whenever the unimaginable is about to become reality, the forces that oppose this new possibility fight more viciously than ever before to keep it from happening. That’s how, in the last few months, it could seem as if the worst of our past had risen from the grave to swallow our present: a man at a Palin rally holding a stuffed monkey with an “Obama” sign; Palin quoting Westbrook Pegler, the Hearst columnist who once wrote gleefully anticipating the assassination of Robert Kennedy; McCain’s “Who Is Barack Obama?” ads; McCain flack who with defeat looming went on CBS to talk about Obama’s appeal to “urban voters”; McCain and Palin, who represent a party that built its power over the past eight years on the corpses of nearly 3000 murdered New Yorkers, implying that the city where they lived and worked and were killed was not part of “real America.” Listening and looking at this it was impossible not to think of H.L. Mencken’s words: “The job before democracy is to get rid of such canaille. If it fails, they will devour it.” In other words, it was hard not to doubt the wisdom of democracy itself.
What we have avoided, I think, is the country Philip Roth described in his historical what-if The Plot Against America, a place where Charles Lindbergh defeats FDR and ushers in a fascist government. We have avoided the horror of seeing democracy eviscerated by democratic means while the symbols of democracy remain in mocking place.
But what we have to guard against—perhaps even more than the certainty that what remains of the crazed right will grow even crazier—is our own childish temptation to feel let down when the work ahead, with the inevitable compromises and setbacks, does not provide the elation of this moment.
This is what Obama tried to prepare us for in his speech in Grant Park Tuesday night, the words of a man equal to an unprecedented moment in history, telling us we had to be equal to the history that lies ahead. He echoed the abolitionist William Cullen Bryant and Martin Luther King’s final speech (“I believe we as a people will get there”); he turned his campaign slogan “Yes We Can” into the call-and-response cadences of African-American preaching; and he quoted Sam Cooke.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Obama said, lifting the line from Cooke’s great final single “A Change Is Gonna Come.” A few nights before the election a friend played the song for me and, fearful that my optimism would not be rewarded, I could scarcely listen. Cooke, in a voice of weary assurance, the voice King adopted the night before his murder when he said he had seen the Promised Land, sings that all the indignities faced by black Americans would one day be answered by justice.
Cooke didn’t live to see that justice. He didn’t even live to see the song released. But when Obama—a man who embodies a change that African Americans could scarcely imagine—promised “Change has come to America,” I wondered, Can Sam Cooke rest now?
Charles Taylor is a contributor to the New York Times, Newsday, the New York Observer, the Nation, and other publications.