Just as the Emancipation Proclamation forever changed America’s relationship with African-Americans, just so what happened one week ago will inevitably change who we are as Americans and how America sees us. I could tell a joke about how we’re obviously going to have to make up a new name for ourselves having gone from negroes to colored people to black people to Afro-Americans to people of color to African-Americans.

Yet, while this represents an incredible opening, there’s still much to do. Henry Louis Gates has an incredible piece over at The Root that is highly recommended for a true historical perspective. Here’s an excerpt:

How many of our ancestors have given their lives—how many millions of slaves toiled in the fields in endlessly thankless and mindless labor—before this generation could live to see a black person become president? “How long, Lord?” the spiritual goes; “not long!” is the resounding response. What would Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois say if they could know what our people had at long last achieved? What would Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman say? What would Dr. King himself say? Would they say that all those lost hours of brutalizing toil and labor leading to spent, half-fulfilled lives, all those humiliations that our ancestors had to suffer through each and every day, all those slights and rebuffs and recriminations, all those rapes and murders, lynchings and assassinations, all those Jim Crow laws and protest marches, those snarling dogs and bone-breaking water hoses, all of those beatings and all of those killings, all of those black collective dreams deferred—that the unbearable pain of all of those tragedies had, in the end, been assuaged at least somewhat through Barack Obama’s election? This certainly doesn’t wipe that bloody slate clean. His victory is not redemption for all of this suffering; rather, it is the symbolic culmination of the black freedom struggle, the grand achievement of a great, collective dream.

And indeed, while watching Barack Obama and his family in the White House as the first family will surely erode racism, there’s a backlash coming. For every freedom we achieve, there’s usually a corresponding push backwards and we must be ready to pull the nation forward in the face of such reactionary attempts.

It was only 25 or 30 years after the Emancipation that Jim Crow was unleashed and African-Americans, while free were oppressed afresh. There will be those who will watch for every slip of Obama’s to prove that blacks are inferior. There will be those who believe that everything is equal now and there is no more racism in America. Observe The Wall Street Journal:

While Mr. Obama lost among white voters, as most modern Democrats do, his success is due in part to the fact that he also muted any politics of racial grievance. We have had in recent years two black Secretaries of State, black CEOs of our largest corporations, black Governors and Generals — and now we will have a President. One promise of his victory is that perhaps we can put to rest the myth of racism as a barrier to achievement in this splendid country. Mr. Obama has a special obligation to help do so.

Yet we know that the playing field is still not level for people of color in America despite this dramatic, positive step. How many black CEOs are there now for example – it’s a small percentage after all and not proportionate to our population. There are only 5 Black CEOs in the Fortune 500 — 7 Asian-Americans and 7 Hispanics. 5 out of 500 is just 1%, folks. Our work for equal access and equal opportunity continues, bouyed mightily by what happened just one week from today and the Inauguration to come.

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