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A personal take on Obama's victory 

Sen. Barack Hussein Obama is President-elect of the United States. While I understood the magnitude of what might happen during this arduous election, I never processed emotionally what the election of the first black president would mean. I had thought about it intellectually -- historically, socially, economically and from a distance.

As a post-civil rights child born in Charlottesville, Va., to a mother raised on a farm designed by Thomas Jefferson, raised as a child in Lynchburg, the home of Rev. Jerry Falwell, and who as an teenager constructed my identity in Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, the civil rights struggle was always present. It was in museums, on street signs and in the ridiculous behavior of white folks not yet used to blacks having civil rights.

I remember being called the "N" word pretty much every day of elementary school at Linkhorne Elementary -- never by the teachers, who were fantastic, but by my fellow students, who were repeating what they heard at home. I remember our neighbor's daughter calling us the "N" word when we played (my sister and me) when she got mad at us. I remember being angry with my mother for telling us we could not play with her anymore and not understanding why this word was worse than other "bad" words, especially since we heard it every day at school. My 6-year-old mind couldn't process it. Even as someone who grew up in the residue of racism -- and let me be clear, it does not remotely compare to what my parents and ancestors experienced -- I never fully understood emotionally what this election meant for this country.

I had not processed that until Monday, Nov. 3, 2008. I was dressing hurriedly for work and going over details of Watch the Vote, an election watch-party that RushmoreDrive.com was sponsoring at Johnson C. Smith University. It was sort of my brainchild, and everyone at the office had been working feverishly to make it happen. My colleagues had invested so much time and energy that I did not want it to fail. I couldn't sleep the night before -- not because of the upcoming election but because of the event.

I knew that I had done everything that I could to help Obama win: donated money, canvassed neighborhoods, handed out literature, co-sponsored and moderated election education forums and written extensively about this campaign. I felt I had done my part and needed to focus on this event. As I was dressing hurriedly, my phone rang. It was someone from the Medical College of Virginia's coronary intensive care unit calling to tell me that my mother had suffered a heart attack. My heart literally stopped. The nurse told me my mother had been admitted the previous night, and they felt they needed to contact a family member against her wishes.

I could not believe this was happening. I remembered chatting with my sister the night before about how we had not spoken with Mom that day, which was quite odd. After a brief conversation with a nurse, I asked to speak with my mother. I told her that I loved her and asked why she didn't tell me?

She uttered through labored breaths, "Because I wanted to make sure that you voted."

I could not believe that was the reason that she did not call us but it was -- she wanted us to vote in what is one of the most important elections in history. A woman who had been raised in segregated Virginia, whose parents and grandparents had been denied the right to vote, wanted to make sure that her children were a part of creating that change.

It was at this moment I realized the emotional weight of a black person winning the presidency. I told her, "I'm your child, so you know that I voted early." She asked me to not tell my sister; she wanted to make sure that my sister voted instead of coming down there since Maryland does not do early voting. I assured her that things would be fine, grabbed a bag and my dog, and hit the road. I drove home in silence, realizing that this is where I should have been the entire time -- with my mother. The woman, who raised us to believe that all people are created equal and that we could be anything we wanted to be in life, was the person with whom I needed to share this historic evening. She taught us those values -- equality, integrity, diversity -- and wanted us to be a part of it and to see it with our own eyes.

As I sat with her and watched election returns come in, I smiled because I knew that she would recover and that I was exactly where I needed to be. We celebrated after Virginia delivered the electoral votes needed for the win. As I watched Obama give his victory speech, I looked at the audience and saw what my mother had always dreamed of and only experienced in her adult life -- people of different backgrounds and races coming together to move this country forward. The America that we dream about, read about and debate about was finally present. More importantly, I realized the importance of seeing a black person win the highest position in the land held for someone who was told that it would never happen and truly never thought that she would see it in their lifetime or mine.

So, sort of like America, I finally got it, even though I took the long way home.

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of communications and media studies at Goucher College and editorial director for RushmoreDrive.com.

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