Image: New York Times
Till I was about 13 or 14 years old, my readings of American history consisted only of offerings from the history of the United States during World War 2, an old and enduring historical interest of mine. It was when I picked up Harold Evans's The American Century, a superb and magisterial illustrated history of the country during the twentieth century, that I became painfully and woefully aware of the injustice that African-Americans faced in this country for two hundred years. I was horrified to read about Jim Crow, the dog squads and water hoses on the streets of Montgomery, Alabama, the lynchings in Mississippi. As a boy who was about the same age then, I was especially sickened and completely shaken by the relatively recent story of Emmet Till, a story that has been vividly seared into my mind ever since.
I could not believe that this was the country enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, the land which first and foremost looked at the integrity of one's character and his or her abilities and not where he or she came from. And yet I saw hope and fundamental human decency in Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement. But since then, I have often felt whether any event or moment in the United States could possibly mentally transport me to a pre-Harold Evans time when I had a singularly auspicious and pristine perception of this country. Such a moment would never come because one cannot erase the scars inflicted on this country's character for two hundred years. But I feel convinced that if there would be a moment closest to such a moment in my life, that moment would be yesterday night.
At midnight, I stood on the 15th floor of the Hyatt Regency Hotel and amid the car horns constantly blaring on the street downstairs, I strained my ears to catch every word that he spoke on the TV screen. The overriding feeling among everyone around me was one of peace and relief and tears even more than elation.
He looked tired, relieved and happy but not jubilant. He knows the difficult task that lies ahead and knows that celebration right now is premature. He knows that there's much to be done and that this is just the beginning. He knows that he may not be able to bring about a sea change in the way things have been done. But he knows that he will nudge the country in the right direction by valuing and fostering rationality and honest debate. He knows he will be upfront and forthright about what he thinks and he understands the value of the journey, even if the final destination may not be known. He understands the value of incremental progress.
And he knows that his extraordinary story culminating in yesterday's night healed at least some of the internal divisions among his own people and will go a long way in reviving his country's image in the world as the land of opportunity, diversity and respect.
He did it. Now we have to do it. Now we can get back to our lives.