Before the euphoria of this election wears off, before the rush of events subsumes the incredulous joy, let's consider what it means.
"Obama Makes History," said the headline in this newspaper on Wednesday, a statement of the obvious, but no less momentous for that. Everybody knows it's true -- nearly everybody has been saying it since Tuesday night. But what does it mean to make history?.
David Blight, a Yale historian, has a useful definition: People feel history is being made by events that they realize at once will alter their own lives. "What an extraordinary moment of collective memory we are having!" he says on the telephone from New Haven, Conn., comparing it to Pearl Harbor, the assassination of John F. Kennedy and 9/11.
"This is a special moment, and there aren't a lot of them," says David Nasaw, a historian at the City University of New York. He recounts an e-mail he sent Wednesday to his two grown children: "Whatever happens, enjoy this day, because a moment like this comes once in a lifetime."
History is made in two ways: By dramatic occurrences, often surprises, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989; and by the slow accretion of small changes over long periods. These are harder to notice while they're happening, but often more significant than the isolated, surprising events. The two are usually interrelated.
Says David Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian at Stanford: "The combination of great, inexorable forces on the one hand, and contingency, chance and randomness on the other -- that's what keeps guys like me in business."
On Wednesday, President Bush addressed the issue from the Rose Garden: "Many of our citizens thought they would never live to see that day," he said. "This moment is especially uplifting for a generation of Americans who witnessed the struggle for civil rights with their own eyes, and four decades later see a dream fulfilled."
Most of the real history is still to be made, of course. Obama's election may have the biggest impact on children who will grow up taking a black president for granted.
Johnetta Cole, former president of the historically black Spelman College in Atlanta, says she spent part of Friday morning visiting Beverly Hall, the superintendent of schools in Atlanta. "I told Beverly, for every young child in the Atlanta school system, a miraculous thing just happened," Cole says. "Not every black child, every child. . . . This is of course monumental for us as African Americans, but it is extraordinary for anyone who breathes."
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Cross-posted at They Gave Us A Republic ....