Baratunde Thurston: I used to be cynical about my country. No longer...

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"I think God sent you here to save this election," she said to me. "Well," I responded. "I'm just volunteering for Senator Obama." I was speaking to an elderly black election judge in the southern part of Dallas on the day of Texas's Democratic contest. It was 4 March, 7.30 in the morning, and I was a precinct captain for the Obama campaign.

I had spent the past several days in this predominantly black and poor neighbourhood, going door-to-door to turn out the vote and convert those on the fence. Over 90 per cent of the households I reached were planning to vote, and for Obama.

My election day job was to observe the polling location, make sure it opened on time and periodically record voter numbers. It's hard to believe, but we have a history of occasional election "irregularities" in the United States, and I was to report anything unusual.

When I arrived at 6.45am, 15 minutes before voting was to begin, the voting machines had not even been set up. The election judge, who had been responsible for this precinct for 20 years, complained that she had never seen this type of vote-counting machine before. It was large and grey, had five locks on three sides, and came with a four-page manual. It looked like a Dalek out of Doctor Who. With a government official overseeing me, I got it running. Later that day the election judge gave me a hug and said: "I think God sent you here to save this election."

I have worn proudly my cynicism about the United States. It's my mother's doing. She was an heroic, wise and conscious black woman who planted the seeds of independence in my mind. By age eight, I'd memorised all the countries of Africa. By age 10, I was reading pamphlets about the evils of apartheid. By age 16, I was writing school papers on "The US Propaganda Machine". My mother was an authority figure who always urged me to question authority, and in the case of America's mythology, that meant I never truly bought in.

I was not alone in my outsider perspective. Many black Americans have a different take on America. The attacks of 9/11 and their manipulation into an illegal and unnecessary war hardly shocked us. We have learnt through direct and ancestral experience that the USA routinely fails to live up to its ideals. We bear the scars of this shortcoming physically, economically and psychologically.

Despite our sacrifices – fighting in wars and paying taxes – we are constantly reminded we're not full members of the club. Yet, Barack Obama made me feel American. He has, and this is really quite annoying, made me care enough to get more involved.

His early opposition to the war, the grass-roots nature of his campaign, and his habit of speaking in grammatically correct sentences have all helped. His very composition from white Kansan and black African parents tells a story that is authentically American. Beyond him, however, the reaction of the American people best demonstrates Obama's impact.

For black America, the defining moment occurred on 3 January, when Obama won in overwhelmingly white Iowa. It was a sign that things in this country were changing. Although Obama is the nominee, the path ahead won't be easy. People still ask, "Is America ready for a black president?" That's the wrong question. America has never been "ready" to extend its ideals to all of its citizens without being pushed. Was America "ready" for emancipation or women's suffrage or Simon Cowell? No, but we've got them now and in two of those three cases, we are much better for it.

There are still individual and systemic problems of race in America. James Clyburn, a black Congressman supporting Hillary Clinton, endorsed Obama this week and received heinous, racist calls to his office from some Clinton supporters. The family of Sean Bell still seeks justice after New York City police shot him more than 50 times in a sadly common incident of state-sponsored violence against blacks.

Neither the nomination nor the election of Barack Obama will magically silence the voices of bigotry nor erase the ills of structural racism.

And yet, Obama's ascent can move us forward if only by expanding the bounds of what we imagine to be possible. We have in the Obamas, the model of an intact, beautiful, loving family. Black boys see a black man famous for something other than rhyming or running. The world sees America represented by someone with family in parts of the world America has traditionally forsaken, exploited or bombed. Sure, it is symbolic, but symbols are powerful.

Over the next weeks, months and decades, we'll see what the tangible results of Obama's success are, but the most immediate significance for black Americans is that Obama reminds us we too are American.

The writer works for 'The Onion' and blogs for Jack and Jill Politics and 'The Huffington Post'

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