“Yes we can.”
When the news echoed across Chicago’s Grant Park that Barack Obama had, indeed, become the first African-American president of the United States of America, a visible wave of emotion swept across the thousands who had gathered.
One African-American woman, standing alone at the edge of the crowd, began sobbing silently and uncontrollably.
Others were far more voluble, screaming with joy, chanting Obama’s name and shouting “Yes we Can” as the results rolled across the giant television screens erected in the park.
It is extraordinary to think that a nation has been wracked with racial turmoil for so much of its bloody history has now elected – and by a huge margin – its first president of colour.
But it is also very American.
Power of democracy
This is a nation that thrives on the great story, of triumph over adversity, even, as Obama’s book described it “the audacity of hope”.
And as the president-elect said himself in his speech to the crowd:”If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”
Obama’s Republican rival, John McCain, also acknowledged the historic nature of the race, saying there was “no better indication of the change than the election of an African-American to the White House.”
However, in his brief yet moving speech on Tuesday evening, Obama’s surprisingly humble entreaty to the crowd to “help me”, as he prepared to take on the job of
the 44th US president, perhaps also shows his own awareness of the enormity of the task at hand.
Once in the White House the new president’s “in tray” contains the thorny issues of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the ailing economy and the nation’s own social ills; items either begun or, arguably, exacerbated by the current administration.
But Dale Gosslin, a Chicago local who lost his IT job the day before the election, said Obama was the candidate to fix the current situation.
“He will put capabilities in front of his own personal convictions,” he said confidently.
“He’ll put the right people in the right jobs.”
‘Change the world’
Many of those gathered in Grant Park admitted they were not just excited but also relieved after months of often bitter campaigning and early nerves when some polls did not seem to be giving Obama the emphatic victory they had hoped for.
“I’m excited and relieved, I knew he was going to be president, though, I just knew it,” Camille Traficanto, a photographer from Chicago, said.
|Younger voters were prominent in the crowd at Chicago’s Grant Park|
“Finally we have someone who will change the world.”
Dee Daniels, publisher of Noir Woman magazine, said that as an African-American woman she was “extremely proud” of Obama’s victory.
She also hailed Obama for running “not as a black man but as a man wanting to make a difference in our country”.
But she cautioned that the US “had to be realistic”, perhaps concerned of overinflated expectations that have some commentators have suggest could lead him to be only a “one term” president.
Prominent among the crowd was the amount of younger voters – the product, in part, of aggressive voter registration drives by the Democratic party, and interest in Obama as a candidate of the so-called “Youtube” or “Facebook” generation.
Throughout the crowd, teenagers and younger children were frantically texting, Twittering, taking pictures on mobile phones and blogging on handheld devices.
One mother told Al Jazeera it was her young daughter’s interest in Obama that spurred her own fascination with the candidate.
Her daughter readily admitted she had pestered her mother to buy her an Obama t-shirt even though she cannot vote.
Other teenagers said they felt Obama was the man to reach out to their age group.
“Obama can connect better with younger people and his ideology fits with us better,” Tejaswi Digtakavi, 17, whose father had brought her to the event, said.
The next step
So what happens next?
Already the delicate process of assembling a new administration will be in full swing,
and inauguration day in January promises to be another emotional day in what has been an alternately exhausting and exhilarating campaign.
The Democrats emerge stronger from the congressional elections which ran alongside the presidential poll, another factor in Obama’s favour as he prepares for his presidency.
And there will be the inevitable picking over the election’s bones by the various pundits on all the television channels, newspapers and blogs.
And for this city, as the detritus of Tuesday night’s events in Grant Park is swept away by Chicago’s cleaners, what will remain is the certainty that its inhabitants on Wednesday will wake up knowing it has played the latest, and perhaps most extraordinary part in US history.