Yesterday, I got an e-mail from Patricia Moran, a longtime reader who articulated what millions of people were feeling the morning after Barack Obama became the official presidential standard bearer of his party:
"When I was 16," Pat's e-mail read, "I used to work before school in a small restaurant where my stepmother worked. One morning, early, two black people and their child came in and tried to sit down and order breakfast.
"My stepmother refused to serve them. I begged her to make them hamburgers to go -- and she did. I still remember the look on the man's face as I brought the hamburgers out to his car. That was 62 years ago!
"Last night, I saw a black man nominated for president of the United States. No matter who you want for president, what a historic moment for our country this is! We need to stop for a moment and realize how FAR we have FINALLY come, and feel a little pride this morning for our country. I know I am very proud!"
I never drank from a segregated fountain, but I'm old enough to remember what it was like to sit on a yellow school bus chased by white teenagers who objected to black kids integrating a school in their neighborhood.
It was an era when people were more upfront about their prejudices. The kids who pelted our bus with water balloons and eggs and spit at our windows when the bus came to a stop sign always made a game of it. And of course, Philly cops never took it seriously until the neighborhood zip guns came out.
A year after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, and five years after the March on Washington, I couldn't imagine a time when anyone with black skin could ever become president.
Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" message was already the most memorable speech in the world, but it seemed like science fiction to me. By 1969, race relations were as tense as they had ever been in America.
After all, the country could barely handle Nichelle Nichols' Lt. Uhura character on "Star Trek." When NBC finally canceled the only series on TV that featured a black character with a funny African name, I was already cynical.
While my 9-year-old self was brooding on the back of a school bus in Philly, what was the 8-year-old Barack Obama doing? Could he have possibly imagined a scenario in which he would be running for president 39 years later?
If by some trick of 24th-century Star Trek technology, the Barack Obama of 2008 had materialized in the bedroom of a chubby introvert then living in Jakarta with his mother and stepfather, what would the boy -- also named Barack Obama -- have thought of such startling news from the future?
Obama 2008: "Barack, get up. You have an amazing life ahead of you. You've slept in long enough."
Obama 1969: Whoa! How did you get in here without mom seeing you? Who are you?
Obama 2008: "Listen carefully, Barack. I'm who you will become four decades from now. I'm Barack Obama, the Democratic Party's nominee for president of the United States in 2008."
Obama 1969: You're me and you're from the future? That doesn't seem likely. If you're really me, how did I get so skinny?
Obama 2008: "Arugula and basketball. Plus more ambition than you can imagine sitting in this dark room all day, Barack. Did you hear me? I said I'm the Democratic nominee for president."
Obama 1969: I heard you, but I figure you're crazy or something. Black people can't be president of the United States.
Obama 2008: "You haven't experienced the future, but you know what's possible and what's not in 2008? You're more talented than I remember, Barack."
Obama 1969: Barry. Call me Barry.
Obama 2008: "Your name is Barack Obama. Embrace who you are. Don't ever shrink from the truth, no matter how convenient it would be to do so."
Obama 1969: Can you tell me what the future is like? Do black people and white people get along like Martin Luther King said we would?
Obama 2008: "We've all come a long way, Barack, but some old attitudes persist. Still, enough has changed to make it possible for people like us to run for president."
Obama 1969: Are you going to win?
Obama 2008: "I hope I do, for America's sake, Barack."
Obama 1969: What if you don't?
Obama 2008: "Then I still have the love of my beautiful wife and two daughters. They're waiting for you, Barack. All you have to do is work hard and believe in the future. Can you get out of bed and face it with hope and perseverance?"
Yes I can, the young Barack says. Yes I can.