At 12:30 a.m. on the morning of Nov. 5, a small group of students near Old Campus’s McClellan Hall was the first in a ring of 700 students to break into the national anthem.
It was a celebration of President-elect Barack Obama’s electoral victory. It was a song to which students from all races knew the words.
And that, said Rodney Reynolds ’10, was exactly the point. Black students marching from the Afro-American Cultural Center to Old Campus decided at the last minute to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and not “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”, the black national anthem.
“We thought of how this victory was not only one for African-Americans, but also one for all Americans,” Rodney Reynolds ’10 said in an e-mail message. “At the point of this realization we thought it may have been somewhat inappropriate to sing ‘Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing’ with a lot of people who didn’t necessarily personally identify with that journey or who just plain didn’t know the words to the song.”
One week after Obama won a historic electoral victory, black students on campus are still savoring the moment America elected its first black president. But the nation has not changed in a week, they said. Old racial stereotypes persist, and a legacy of persecution cannot be so quickly wiped away. But with a black man in the White House, they said, there is cause for hope and grounds for even greater civic involvement.
“We passed a tremendous milestone last week, and, for me personally, racial reconciliation is much more tangible now,” wrote Funmi Showole ’08, a founding member of the Coalition for Campus Unity and former ethnic counselor, in an e-mail message. “But we have yet to fully achieve it. It is crucial that we do not resign ourselves, believing that our work is done. The election of Obama does not eradicate, in one swoop, national and global racism and we will be doing a great disservice to ourselves and this country if we believe that it does.”
Those who participated in the rally on Old Campus are still on “election-night highs,” said Quincy O’Neal ’10, who helped organize the singing on Old Campus.
On the night of Nov. 4, shortly after 11 p.m., 200 students at the Af-Am House erupted in cheers when CNN declared that Obama, the Democratic senator from Illinois, would be the 44th president of the United States.
“After Obama clinched the victory, the room erupted in cheers and tears and phone calls home,” Showole said.
The first person Reynolds called was his mother.
“I called her sobbing and screaming: ‘They used to say we couldn’t vote, Ma! Now look at our president!’ ” he recalled. “ ‘They said we weren’t people, Ma! Now look at our president!’ ”
Jeremy Harp ’10, political action chair for the Black Student Alliance at Yale, asked the assembled crowd if it would join him in a rendition of “Lift Ev’ry Voice.” The tune includes such lyrics as “We have come over a way that with tears has been watered/ We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered/ Out from the gloomy past/ ’Til now we stand at last/ Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.”
After Harp asked the gathered students to sing, Showole suggested the group march to Old Campus, a move hearkening back to the civil rights marches of the 1960s. Students quickly agreed.
As the line of marchers crossed York St., a police cruiser turned on its sirens to halt traffic, Harp said. Having started at around 200 students, the group grew to over 400 students as the marchers passed by Jonathan Edwards and Branford colleges, students said. Marchers called up to those watching from windows, Latisha Campbell ’12 said, and as more students joined the march, the column grew.
By the time the crowd reached Old Campus and mixed with students already celebrating on the grass there, the students numbered roughly 700, organizers said. The students formed a ring, and started to sing.
Other black students who were there on Election Night said that, historic as Obama’s election may be, it does not mark the finish line for black involvement in civic life. Reynolds recalled the words of Princeton University professor Cornel West to express his feelings toward the new president-elect.
“If Obama wins the election, that day I’m going to celebrate — in fact, I’ll break dance for him,” West said at a February 2008 symposium at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. “But the next day I’ll be ready to critique him in the name of everyday people.”
Agreeing with West, Reynolds argued that although America has elected its first black president, the nation is not above scrutiny.
“Now, more than ever, it is a time to be critical,” Reynolds added. “Of politics, of politicians, of race relations, and of all our nation’s challenges.”