HARLEM, N.Y.-From 7 a.m., the line at the Schomburg Center for Research wrapped around the block. Staff opened the doors at 10, and the auditorium's 340 seats filled before 11. Security guards yelled above the roar that the auditorium was at capacity, but a lobby full of people still clamored to get in.
Inside, reporters pressed themselves against the walls, and the roar reverberated as CNN was shown on the auditorium screen. Majority races were in the minority, but the audience was still diverse: a blonde girl with an accent and a video recorder; a skinny white man with a threadbare Obama shirt, campaign staff name tag, and a long curly ponytail poking from beneath his Obama hat worn backward; and an elderly black women in a lavender turban and long matching tunic, sitting in the press section and taking notes in a black book.
The audience booed George H.W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and George W. Bush. They cheered Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, cooed over Malia and Sasha Obama, came to their feet for Aretha Franklin, and grew indignant when CNN's coverage of Obama's speech cut in and out. A woman near the front stood for the whole ceremony with her hand stretched out toward the screen. When Obama said, "All this we can do. All this we will do," the crowd roared back, "Yes, we will!" When Joseph Lowery said, "Will all those who love justice and mercy say, 'Amen!'" the crowd shouted, "Amen!"
They expressed their prayers, their hopes, and their reservations. Najuma Wilson had waited in line since 8:45 a.m. She made the pilgrimage from New Jersey back to her family's home borough to watch. Although two-thirds of African-Americans now believe that Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream has been fulfilled, Wilson is more cautious. But she said we're on the right road: "The color lines are starting to become more blurred, but I think that we still have quite a ways to go. . . . This one thing isn't going to change everything, but I think it's a step in the right direction."
Henrietta Mazyck sat on a walker behind the last row of chairs in the bottom half of the auditorium, but like the rest of the audience, she rose to her feet when the announcer said Barack Obama's name, bowing her head and murmuring, "Amen" and "Praise God" during Rick Warren's prayer. She said she didn't think she would live to see a black man elected president-and although she supported Obama from the beginning, she didn't always think he would win. In the next four years, she hopes "that people would get together and do the right thing for every human being-work together as one. No color, just people, loving each other and doing the right thing, helping."
Ruth Duncan, a Harlem native, also wanted unity: "I would like to see white, black, Jew, Gentile all live in harmony." Like Mazyck, she had more hope than confidence that Obama would win, but she thinks "God Almighty" looked down and said it was time.
Afterward, Sharon Sako stood outside of the center and smoked a cigarette in the cold. More reflective than jubilant, she said, "It was the first time I stepped away from cynicism for a minute." Sako, a native Texan whose mother went to an all-black college, was 10 years old when the Civil Rights Bill passed. She was thinking about the past: "My mind stretched back to my great-grandmother, who was born in reconstruction in 1873. . . . My mind stretched back to her and the succeeding generation-the world as I've always known it and the world as it's changed. . . . I pray for the future. I just pray for the future."
Her thoughts also turned to current events: "Let's take freedom out of jargon mode and really practice what we preach." Her prayers include "that we'll mature and realize that freedom applies to everyone-including the Middle East-not just us."
She laughed when asked if she thought Obama would win: "I felt that if I assumed his victory I was going to jinx his campaign. Remember I'm old school. I was eager to believe; I saw it happening, but I was afraid to pronounce it because I didn't want to spoil it.
"In all honesty, I think some of us just held our breaths, and we said, 'Run, baby, run!' And when he made it, we jumped up and down. We didn't pronounce anything, we just said, 'Run-let's see how far he's gonna get.' And he made it to the finish line."