Yes We Did! Chicago keeps the faith

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The Independent Online

The vendors had taken a chance and it had paid off. "Yes We Did" on black cotton was the best-selling T-shirt on Michigan Avenue in the wee hours yesterday, as thousands - Chicagoans, visitors from across America and from abroad - jammed the pavements, not ready to surrender the moment and sleep.

It was a raucous night in Chicago, of course. Yet, it was oddly quiet too. The joy was profound for so many, so profound it did not quite need shouting from the roof-tops. Two young women just flashed a thumbs-up and smiled at anyone who saw them and their sign: 'Barack Obama will let us get married'.

Valerie Gilliam was silent, standing almost rooted to the grass several minutes after Barack Obama had delivered his victory speech and as most of those around her - some 250,000 had been crammed into the enclosure - were starting to depart. She too held a sign. It read, "Hold on... Help is on the Way. 1-20-2009". That, of course, is when Mr Obama will be inaugurated as America's 44th president.

Mrs Gilliam, who recently lost her job in information technology, did not need to say anything more. The sign spoke for her and so did the rivulets of emotion wetting each of her cheeks. Hers was the smile of someone for whom the happiness was such it might almost be hurting.

The crowd, which hours before had streamed into Grant Park under a crescent moon and beneath the cliffs of Chicago's sky-scraping downtown, had its noisy moments. It watched the results on jumbo screens and each early sliver of good news for Mr Obama bought waves of whoops and whistles. They became full-throated roars when the big states fell his way: Pennyslvania, Ohio, and Virginia.

The projection, finally, that the man who calls Chicago his home, who had dared run for the land's highest office in spite of his funny name and the colour of his skin, had indeed been elected president, unleashed an explosion of joy and relief that surely rattled windows half way to Milwaukee to our north.

Everyone who was in Grant Park will have one thing that remains with them probably for ever. Maybe it was spotting a celebrity milling with the press or close to the VIP tents backstage to the left. Yes, that was Oprah. Perhaps it was a hug of exhilaration from a partner when the suspense was really over and what had seemed impossible, and yet so right, at last came true. Or maybe it was the sight of the Reverend Jesse Jackson standing close to the stage. Jesse, quite simply, was blubbering.

They played the music we had heard so many times at the rallies and, as ever, we were treated to a live, rendering of the star-spangled banner. But what will remain for ever with this witness is this. The quiet. The quiet of the crowd when Mr Obama came out, stepped to the microphones between the flanking sheets of bullet-proof glass and began to speak.

We were not at a sports occasion. We were not even at a campaign rally. The word has been overused, but we were in a moment of history and yelping, gurgling or screaming 'I love you' was suddenly was no longer appropriate. Standing on a folding chair stolen from one of the tents, I saw all these faces, just looking and listening. Smiling of course, but also in some kind of awe. Rapturous but rapt.

It was a spell that only began to break towards the end of the speech when Mr Obama warned of the challenges ahead and promised that America would meet them. It began at the front and spread suddenly all the way to the back. "Yes We Can." He responded in kind. "Yes, We Can."

Tuesday was becoming Wednesday. The people in Chicago had wanted this moment to come for so long. For so long, they had prayed that enough people in America would come together and vote for this one man. And here on the streets, their smiles all said the same thing. Yes, They Did.

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