There is a non-descript government building that opposes a McDonald's on the corner of 14th and U in NW Washington, DC. Outside this building, a row of flags--an American flag and a couple of other anonymous banners--sprouts from the sidewalk. On any normal day, or night, it is an ordinary site that plays host to little other than a cool breeze and some passing pedestrians.
Last night--as 50 Stars and 13 Stripes whipped jubilantly overhead--I danced in a drum circle while hundreds of citizens of the District of Columbia chanted "USA! USA! USA!" and a warm, Autumn rain washed all of us.
It was a fine American mess. The finest I've ever seen. Or expect to see in my lifetime.
Many better-informed, better-paid, more eloquent people than I will seek to capture for you what the election of Barack Obama means. They--along with many others who hack away like I do--will probably describe their version of the moment. The moment Barack Obama was elected President of the United States of America. Every version of the moment will contain its own magic. And every description will rise with ambition to approximate the power that surged within all of us last night.
I can list for you the details of my moment. A cubby hole with a liquor license and a kitchen full of delicious. Stone's throw from Howard University. Old friends. Happy strangers. Tears. Hugs. Applause. Smiles wide like it was a wedding day. Sam Cooke's "Change Gonna Come." More tears. More hugs. More applause. A toast. A pledge. More hugs. Smiles still wide, unremoved and beaming.
Eventually, many of us took to the streets after a symphony of car horns beckoned us. Someone handed me a pile of Obama'08 signs to pass out. I kept one for myself and wandered west on U Street trying to pierce the sky with it like any good son of Norma Rae would be expected to do. A young, midnight-complected woman hanging out the passenger side window of an Explorer waved me over, squeezed me as if she was trying to pull me into her skin and screamed "OBAMA!!!" for the entire ether to hear.
That drizzle that fell on our nation's capital late last night fell a little bit harder with each passing minute. Sometime after midnight--after Obama delivered the last word of his acceptance speech--the skies dried up. The rain had come. And the rain had gone away.
The rhythm from the drums grew louder. Police sirens wailed halfheartedly. The rhythm grew even louder. Car horns helped keep the beat. Sub-woofers from stoodstill cars blared whatever song the iPod shuffled up next. Someone started an Electric Slide. Everyone else seemed to join in. It was a celebration worthy of Rick James himself.
To some degree, we witnessed an affirmation of American-ness last night. If we have learned anything about this Grand Experiment of ours, though, there lies a mess beneath the make-believe monolith that is these United States of America. Our one nation, some might argue, is structured in a fundamentally divisible way. You can draw up whatever teams you want. Based on whatever terms suit you. In every case, tax-payers will be pitted against each other. There will be an "Us." And there will be a "Them."
On this day, after last night, "Us" can be defined much more broadly than it ever has been. You didn't need to ask anyone on U Street to know that. Their eyes, their smiles and the hugs they gave declared as much. It was as if a good many of us had finally arrived at 1776.
Much later in the dry darkness of this morning, I sat in my bed in Northern Virginia. Inhaling a Quarter Pounder with Cheese and some McDonald's fries. Bar-b-que sauce dripping on my t-shirt. A good friend called from Texas--interrupting the feast--to celebrate and discuss what had happened and what could happen next. There remains, we agreed, a massive amount of work to be done.
For there is a fine American mess that a very different, brand new "Us" can claim, in part, as our own.