I remember the first time I ever saw Barack Obama's name. I remember laughing.
I was riding in a friend's car in Chicago five years ago when I spotted a navy billboard alongside the freeway, well-lit and well-juxtaposed in front of the Second City skyline, topped with small white type over huge block letters spelling out a name I'd never seen before.
I'm no etymologist or anthropologist, so I didn't know what the origin of the name was. Truth be told, I thought it was Japanese (and I guess I had good reason). I asked my friend, with an immature scoff in my voice, "Who's that?" I was told that Barack Obama was an exciting local politician who was "someone to watch".
I learned more about him, and began to follow his race for the U.S. Senate from afar. It was a contest missing any sense of drama (as long as you don't count Alan Keyes). I recall a growing admiration for him, rooted in a perceived commonality with his life experience. But while every home I grew up in was within a five-mile radius of the other, this Obama was a citizen of the world.
Still, as he marched to victory in that 2004 Senate race, I had the feeling I was witnessing a preview of a bright future. Best way to sum it up? Without waxing too poetic, I can best compare it to this: a sailor lost at sea suddenly spots a lighthouse, a safe haven that though far away, offers promise of salvation to come.
Even in 2004, we were a country that needed saving.
At the Democratic National Convention, we saw the future for the first time:
As a Christian with an Arabic name, my ears perked up when Barack Hussein Obama spoke of his name, and how his parents believed that in America, one's name would not be a barrier to success. I shot out of my seat when he spoke of the United States of America, and the prayer that we all had a place in that America. And after he was done, I sent up thanks, sharing a thought and dream with so many: that this 43-year-old Illinois state senator would someday be the first African-American President.
Even as we wallowed in silent disbelief after John Kerry's loss, there was the promise of salvation to come. Barack Obama's victory in his Senate race served notice that a day like November 4, 2008 could come. Only I thought that it would come in 2016, at the earliest. No way could we elect a Black president. Not this soon, at least. Not when this "skinny kid with a funny name" still looked, well, like a kid. If Barack Obama was to move into the White House, he'd have to wait.
Besides, Hillary Clinton was next in line. John Edwards was still out there, and not found out. There were other contenders for barrier-breaking: Clinton, Bill Richardson. (The latter was actually my bet; if there was any chance for a person of color, it was a Hispanic guy with an Anglo-Saxon last name that didn't look particularly "ethnic".)
No way could we elect a Black president. Not this soon, at least.
Fast-forward to February, 2007. Despite the catcalls he knew he'd hear - "he's too young!"; "he's too inexperienced!"; "he's too...uh, presumptuous!" - the junior senator for Illinois had announced his candidacy boldly and without any hint of wavering. Obama wasn't in this to be a symbol, or to make a stand on a particular issue of interest. He was in to win.
But he knew that his oratory would not carry the day. If so, 2004 would have been more than his moment of anointing. Kerry likely would have won. His loss proved to the Democratic Party and to Obama that there'd better be more meat on them bones. He couldn't just be the beacon off in the distance.
And then, last night arrived. I could wax on about how I wished my great-grandfather, who fled Mississippi lynch mobs at 15 and came north, were here to not only to see this day, but have had the chance to press one of the fingers on his leathered, massive hand to a button inside a voting booth. But to me, after writing incessantly about this man and his message, I finally got it.
As the announcement came through my series of tubes at 11:00pm Eastern, my girlfriend leaped up and started shouting.
Over and over, the lady I pray one day will be my wife was screaming and crying with happiness, and I held her tightly as I heard the Grant Park crowd matching her pitch. This was happening. Now. Past was suddenly prologue to a future that I looked forward to with a new fervor, a future with a wife and kids who, from the day they enter this world, officially have no restrictions on their dreams.
I have Obama to thank for that. While America's obsession with Obama's racial first further proves that there's nothing "post-racial" about his victory, the greatness of the moment was encapsulated in the man's face as he emerged to speak.
Obama approached the microphone with a sobriety and focus that proved once and for all the source of his victory - his temperament and wisdom. Surely the lessons of our horrible American record on race informed that countenance, perhaps even weighing his smile down. He knew that his speeches were the beacon, the light that shined so brightly in our eyes that we had no idea how close salvation could be.
His election does not guarantee that we will be saved from the maladies of the Bush years, and I will take a cue from Obama's own measured nature and others that warn against the romance of politics, criticizing him when deserved. But as I finally collect myself and wipe away the last tear, I find myself finally grasping what Obama's been trying to say all along.
Past is prologue. This is about the future. And the only hope I have for Barack Obama is that he seizes the moment, and helps guide our lost America back to shore.
(Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images.)