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Obama and the one dollar bill

November 21, 2008 01:00 IST
I spent election night at NBC News, helping monitor the Internet coverage of all the breaking news and analysis engulfing us. As I think of the meaning of Barack Hussein Obama's victory, I wanted to share some of my experiences on election night, as well as the story of a certain one-dollar bill I found last month on the Columbia campus.

While doing the NBC work, I got calls from four television networks in India asking me to comment on the results and the historic nature of this mandate.

I was struck by how a couple of the other guests on the shows In India were talking about America 'living up to the principles of its founders' by proving all men are created equal -- ignoring, of course, the fact that many of those founding fathers owned slaves. I also learned the word that was used on Hindi television channels to denote Obama's blackness was ashweth (shweth is white and ashweth is 'not white'). When I was in India, I never had reason to hear or use that term.

Another recurring theme was that Obama's victory showed how divisions had been overcome in the United States and that African-Americans had 'arrived'. I cautioned the interviewers that while this was, indeed, historic. I first came to this country at the age of nine and could never have imagined that a black man would become president in my lifetime. The problems affecting blacks and other minorities wouldn't disappear just because a man of color is about to take up residence in the White House.

I was thinking about that as I walked out of NBC's 30 Rockefeller Plaza building onto the streets of New York City, where throngs of people of all colors were cheering and celebrating. The loudest cheers seemed to be coming from black folks, many of them just yelling for joy into the late night air.

As I entered the subway on West 50th Street and headed to the platform, there was a black woman, who appeared to be in her 40s, standing at the turnstile asking for money for a ride home. And while everyone around her was cheering, she was barely smiling — all she wanted was to go home.

It occurred to me then that Obama's symbolic victory is, in all likelihood, going to mean no improvement in her life-- just an example of how much work there is to be done to help the underclass (of all colors) in America.

At that moment, I pulled out of my wallet the dollar bill I had found on October 10. I had asked friends on Facebook for suggestions on what to do with the piece of currency. The responses included 'Buy loads of stocks', 'Buy Lehman Brothers', 'Buy Iceland's economy' and more on those lines. And then there was the friend who said 'Heck, it is worth at least $1, give it to someone who needs it more.'

Instead of doing any of that, I had carefully tucked away the bill in my wallet.

I pulled out my wallet, found the bill that had George Washington's picture on it, handed it over to the woman, and joined the happy crowd on the platform.

All kinds of people have tremendous expectations of Obama in the years ahead. If he manages to live up to anywhere close to the hype and hope, he could one day be declared a great president --and find himself on a piece of US currency

Professor Sreenath Sreenivasan is dean of student affairs at the Columbia School of Journalism and co-founder of SAJA, the South Asian Journalists Association. This essay is adapted from a small note he first posted on at 2:22 am the morning after the elections.

Sreenath Sreenivasan