As a child, no one ever dared tell me--not my parents, teachers or mentors--that I couldn't be anything that I wanted to be.
Yet, when they would say, "Sweetie, sure, you can go as far as you want to," there was always something beneath the surface. You could see the doubt in their eyes and hear hesitancy in their voices, a clear recognition that we still had a long way to go before overcoming the legacy of slavery and decades of black struggle.
Talking to my African-American elders, I would learn about the places that were off-limits, the career opportunities that weren't for "people like them," and the bigotry that was a reminder that "you don't really belong here." It was expected that doors would be slammed in your face, and that somewhere along your life's journey, you would experience the sting of racism.
So, it was with some skepticism that I embraced the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama, an African- American senator with a black father from Kenya, a white mother from Kansas and an African-American wife from the South Side of Chicago. Even as I entered my polling place on Tuesday, I was hopeful but dubious about the outcome of the election, and preparing myself for disappointment after what had been a particularly divisive campaign.
But then, it happened.
As state after state was called for Obama, the reality hit me like a wave slamming into a sea wall. Watching the anxious but jubilant crowd in Chicago's Grant Park, I understood that a turning point in American history was at hand. And when television announced that Obama was now the president-elect, I knew that I had had no reason to doubt.
A nation that once counted black people as three-fifths of a person, embraced a doctrine of separate but equal and denied African-Americans the right to vote, had shattered a seemingly impenetrable barrier.
But as much as it is a celebration and historic occasion for people of color, the win, too, is a victory for us all.
While Obama enjoyed the overwhelming support of African-Americans, his ascendancy to the highest office in the land was made possible because Americans from diverse backgrounds--whites, Hispanics, blue-collar workers, suburban soccer moms, college students and seniors --believed enough in his message to give him a chance to turn this country in a new direction.
Obama pulled from all regions of the U. S., even winning states that had been staunchly Republican. And he tapped into a sense that Americans hungered for healing and wanted a break from the status quo -- even at a time of economic uncertainty and war.
In the coming days, months and years, Americans will ponder the gravity of what happened on that momentous election night.
For me, at least, it will be the day that I truly believed that anything is possible in America, and that the hope of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. --that we would one day live in a nation where you're judged not by the color of your skin but by the content of your character -- is not a dream.
No, an Obama presidency won't erase every racist word or deed, and there will continue to be discrimination in American life. But it is my hope that when my 16-month-old son is old enough to ask the question, "Mom, can I be anything I want to be?'' there will be no hesitation in my reply.
Julie Lynem is the enterprise editor at The Tribune.