President-Elect Barack Obama: He Was the One We Were Waiting For

Recalling Selma and Mandela, the U.S. achieves its potential, Howard University’s Alton Pollard writes.


"We are the ones we've been waiting for." These were the striking words conveyed with powerful political effect by then-presidential hopeful Barack Obama on the night of Super Tuesday in February. Already, it seems like that moment was a lifetime ago.

With one sentence, Barack Obama deftly captured the imagination of an expectant, waiting, and hope-filled nation and the unanswered hopes and dreams of America's citizens of African descent, a community so long denied equal access and opportunity in this the land of their birth. President-elect Obama's marvelous pronouncement of hope comes from a poem June Jordan wrote in 1980, words she penned in honor of the women of South Africa and their democratic struggle for freedom. As such, Jordan's lyric message has become a mantra of freedom to all women and a hymn for all people who are not free. The elders of the Hopi Nation prophesied these same words in 2000. Alice Walker translated Jordan's refrain into soaring prose. Visionaries, a multiethnic hip-hop group, captured the verse in song. Sweet Honey in the Rock turned the poet's lyrics into a choral anthem. turned them into a You Tube sensation. Barack Obama transformed them into a swelling crescendo of hope.

"Change will not come if we wait for some other person or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for." I did not believe in Barack Obama's candidacy at first. I did not really know who he was, his two bestselling books and unforgettable 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote address notwithstanding. I was not conversant with Obama's administrative discipline, cultural intelligence, transformative platform, democratically inclusive vision. Conversations with well-situated friends raised his profile for me, illumined me. Like many Americans of African descent, I watched his presidential candidacy unfold in 2007, rather quietly and anonymously at first and then with the utmost confidence. I began to feel an unanticipated calm and peace about the momentous journey on which we were now embarking—together. Obama's national ascent was the collective power and unborn aspirations of untold generations. Amazingly, the past had become prologue; the impossible was becoming manifest; whites had found common cause with black and brown; gays and lesbian with straight; young with old; women with men; and red states with blue; the United States of America was becoming us all. We dared to hope in e pluribus unum and "a more perfect union" because Obama dared us so.

"Yes, we can change." The insurgent candidacy of Obama through the Democratic primary season and into the final stretch run has seldom been equaled in the annals of modern history. One other such extraordinary moment does stand out for me however. The 1990 release of Nelson Mandela from prison after 27 long years, coupled with the unbanning of the African National Congress and other African political organizations, deepened and accelerated the magnificent black-led struggle to dismantle institutional white supremacy and false democracy. The majority population of South Africa had long endured in their struggle to replace apartheid (lest we forget the word literally and figuratively means "apart-hate") with a more just and humane social, political, and economic order. I was a monitor in South Africa during those heady and historic 1994 elections. "The people have spoken" was the first thought that went through my mind as I saw persons of every description in the townships, villages, hillsides and cities, all of them first-time voters, hopeful, joyous, silent, dignified—oh were they dignified—waiting, talking, smiling, patient, some having waited in massive lines for hours already for their change to come.

"The change we need (now)." The slumbering spirit of civic involvement and public participation that I agonized could never be reawakened in the American body politic emerged with mobilizing meaning and power. Absentee ballots were mailed in record numbers this year, domestically and from overseas stations. In states where early voting was allowed people began streaming toward their date with destiny weeks ago in a marvelous outpouring of democracy in action. New and first time voters, especially the insurgent hip-hop generation, made sure their voices mattered. The televised and Internet-broadcast scenes of people in long lines and shadowy silhouettes reminded me of the civil rights movement, of Birmingham and Selma and Memphis and the courageous children, women and men who marched along freedom's way. They marched to bring us to this day. Polling irregularities and all manner of discouragements notwithstanding, no wait seemed too long this election season, not at this moment, not after eight years of broken leadership, not after centuries of ceaseless struggle to help our nation become its own best self at last. The people were in a mood to celebrate, but not before their ballots had been cast, and the victory was won.