American History X

Commondreams | I teach American history to students in eastern Tennessee. In the narrative that makes up our nine-month journey, we encounter the broken and bleeding body of the American black dozens of times: crossing the Atlantic, sweating in the southern fields, hanging from the lynching tree, hiding from Jim Crow, dodging night-riders and sheriffs, urban sharecropping in ghettos, rioting after their leaders are shot dead, existing within a system of structural violence, paying never-ending rent to a landlord who keeps jacking up the price and never fixing the leaks in the ceiling.

Because of this, I have always sensed ghosts in my classroom. As if small pieces of the souls of black folk still, somehow, were left clinging to these stories. I always told these stories — of Emmitt Till, Claudette Colvin, Martin Luther King Jr. – with grit in my teeth and a chill in my bones and an ache that the story somehow find resolution.

And then Tuesday night.

Spike Lee declared, “This changes everything.’’ Congressman John Lewis — blood brother to Dr. King — called it a “nonviolent revolution.’’ On the streets and radio and television, I found black people doing one of three things: weeping with joy, jumping with joy, or making the statement, “I never thought I’d live to see the day.’’

If you ever doubted the concept of white privilege, ask yourself: when was the last time a white man wept with joy because another white man was elected president?

It is a new declaration of independence. Electing Obama begins the declaration of independence from a system of white supremacy, and independence from the illusion of democracy that comes from the top-down. Amy Goodman called President-elect Obama the “organizer in chief.’’ He cut his teeth on democracy in the streets of Chicago, and during his midnight speech on Tuesday, said his victory came brick by brick and block by block. This is democracy from the bottom up, which is the only version of democracy worth a damn.

I understand Obama will sit at the helm of a $700 billion defense budget, obscene in its injustice and madness. I understand that this in no way removes the cold violence that exists within black America today. Higher poverty rates, higher infant mortality, higher incarceration rates. Malcolm X had no use for the idea of an American dream, and instead saw it as a nightmare. And so Obama is not a savior, and certainly not the end of racism as we know it.

But we are closer than we’ve ever been.

In my classroom, I can look out my window and see the bridge where a black man was lynched in 1906 for allegedly raping a white girl. The Supreme Court had issued a stay of execution, but the mob was deaf to Washington, and took him out of his cell and strung him up, shot him and strung him up again as the rope broke. When I tell this story from this day forward, that man’s body will not hang so heavily, and the police dogs will not bite with such rage, and the sheriff’s nightstick will slam with less vengeance, and the bullet will not fire because the guns will no longer work.

“We Shall Overcome’’ evolves to: we are overcoming. We have overcome.

David Cook is a former journalist with the Chattanooga Times-Free Press and current columnist with the He teaches American Studies and Democracy Studies at Girls Preparatory School in Chattanooga, TN and can be reached at