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Michelle Obama, left, holds up a drawing of the Obama family as she and President-elect Barack Obama visits Calvin Coolidge High School where students, military families, and volunteer service groups are working on various projects supporting the troops in Washington, Monday, Jan. 19, 2009. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Today, I will not be at work.

I will gather my family and friends and together we will watch the swearing in of Barack Obama as President of the United States with all the pride of parents at a baptism.

To be black in America on Jan. 20, 2009, is to know a deep satisfaction scarcely imagined by generations past. A blizzard of giddy emotions will envelop the souls of millions of black folks in America and all over the world.

But because Obama was embraced and elected by a wide ethnic diversity of voters, the sense of celebration is sweeter and even more profound. Well into my sixth decade, this is an event I never expected to see.

David Early, Mercury News assigning editor
David Early, Mercury News assigning editor (Mercury News)

On election night, working in the midst of a bustling city room, I settled in and expected a lengthy run of embattled counts and political fisticuffs. But scant hours later, when the election of the 44th president was a first-ever, done deal, I was completely unprepared.

All over the newsroom people from a range of backgrounds applauded the nation that had freed itself from 232 years in social, racial, intellectual and political shackles. There were high-fives, hugs and hallelujahs. Even McCain-supporting Republicans seemed to ruefully acknowledged the monumental step America had taken.

I was standing behind a chest-high wall when the televised bulletins obliterated my knees. When someone saw me swiftly drop behind that wall, they shouted, "Omigawd he fainted!"

Not a chance. Nothing could have taken me away from one second of that evening of surreal delight. I had fallen into a nearby office chair, but suddenly tears burned my closed eyelids. In an instant my mind was surveying past a bleak landscape of cruel, sepia-toned images — slaves in chains, jumping brooms, being sold, getting whipped, having babies and enduring lives of horror without end.

But what I felt, shockingly, wasn't rage. It was an unexpected healing of the heart.

On that continuing silent mental road trip, I revisited the agonies of civil rights marchers going hopelessly against brutal decades of Jim Crow segregation that crushed so many lives in court, athletics, housing, education and employment — opportunities forever lost in blood.

Civil rights is not mere history to me. My childhood was haunted by Emmett Till and lit by Rosa Parks. Her framed photograph is the first you see as you enter my home. When four little black girls were blown apart in a Baptist church, when two white and one black civil rights workers were murdered, when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, I was an aware teenager who feared for my kinfolk living in harm's way all over the Deep South.

But on Election Night '08, I felt warmth and calm as I contemplated my late parents, uncles, grandparents and so many family and friends now gone. I knew they'd just giggle over this mighty American miracle. I even phoned a few elders, just so I could hear various, bright-red versions of the phrase: "Never in my lifetime did I ever expect to see this!"

And finally I thought about my special ancestor, Paul Jennings, born in 1799 as a slave on James and Dolley Madison's Montpelier plantation. My great, great, great granddaddy Paul would go on to live in the White House and write "A Colored Man's Reminiscences of James Madison," now considered an insightful, historical document. Ultimately, he'd buy his freedom for $120 from Sen. Daniel Webster and become a government employee, socialite and homeowner in Washington, D.C., my hometown, where he died in 1874.

But election night, I found myself imagining a 10-year-old Paul telling an amused Master James, who was about to become the fourth U.S. president, how one day, a black man would be elected to that same post.

As the principal author of the U.S. Constitution and the Federalist Papers — documents long on ideals but, for some, shaky on execution — I conjured an ethereal Madison benevolently watching over Obama being sworn in, exactly 200 years after he was. Somewhere up there, I hoped all the founding fathers and mothers, and all those fallen slaves, civil rights workers, activists, victims and protesters were smiling down on the prize of their heroic labors.

Obama's election, to some degree, means all the work and tragedies finally paid off. And much credit is due to plenty of human good that also transpired — peaceful sit-ins and boycotts; those who backed the Voting Rights Acts and those who argued and ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education. And a diversity of untold individuals and organizations created affirmative action — the most potent and misunderstood force of them all for breaking down the nation's walls of unfairness.

Along with many around the world, I have enjoyed an African-American being the source of inspiration for many: Men and women. Young and old. Rich and poor. Healthy and handicapped. Professional and vocational. Gay and straight. Urban, suburban and rural. Educated and self-taught. American, immigrant and foreign. Black, white, Latino and Asian.

Forty-five years ago Martin Luther King Jr. shouted "I have a dream today." But at this intense moment, those are brand new words for my healing heart.

And in thinking about my children — David Jr. and Dionne — and my three grandchildren — David III, 11, Dimitri, 7, and Victoria, 10 months — this election makes genuine all those puffy sentiments about hope and dreams and aspirations.

So before Obama comes under attack from the many remaining forces of ignorance and bigotry, I will revel with my family. Rambunctious Dimitri, during the telecast, will doubtlessly ask to go out and play. "No baby boy, not right now,'' my son will say, giving me a knowing smile. "You need to sit with us and pay attention to what's going on here. One day, you'll be glad you did."

His grandfather surely will for the rest of his life.

David E. Early is an assistant city editor for the San Jose Mercury News. He has been a journalist for 35 years. Contact him at dearly@mercurynews.com or (408) 920-5836.