Race, says Michael Fauntroy, a black political scientist at George Mason University, is the "undertow" of American politics.
And yet, suddenly, its presence has been muted by a figure of confident, youthful charisma.
For the first time in our history, an African-American - Sen. Barack Obama - is one of the leading contenders for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. For black voters, in particular, that fact is both thrilling and frightening. It raises a number of profound and sometimes troubling questions:
He has an awesome r?sum?, but is he tied to the historic civil rights movement by more than the passion and energetic rhythm of his speaking?
Has he paid his dues in other ways? Does he have enough experience? Or does he have too much experience in the wider, white world? In other words, is he black enough? (Yes, that one's still on the table.)
If he fails, will the prospects of other rising black politicians be set back?
If he is elected and fails, will black people be embarrassed and horribly disappointed?
And, perhaps most troubling, if they vote for him, are they setting him up for assassination?
These questions have been on the minds of black voters across the country since Mr. Obama entered the race - and increasingly as he prospered in the primaries.
These and other questions were posed by black voters to a panel of black journalists and academics Thursday at Morgan State University. The panel was convened by "Talk of the Nation," a talk show on National Public Radio.
The questions were real, but one got the sense of an inexorably rising tide of support for Mr. Obama. A significant number of black voters have considered Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, but the more they sense the importance of the moment, the more they are leaning toward Mr. Obama.
Ethel Hill, who spoke from the audience at Morgan, said she hails from "the segregated North." She said she never thought she'd see the day when a black man would be doing so well - not because other black men didn't have the potential, but because of ... well, race.
There are, Ms. Hill said, many Obamas in the black community: good role models, hard workers, responsible fathers, men with exemplary resumes who can't past the negative stereotypes.
Any mother, she said, would want a son like him. Similar things were said in Baltimore years ago when Kurt L. Schmoke, now dean of the Howard University Law School, ran for mayor.
Ms. Hill said she had thought about her choices in the race, but concluded: "I couldn't live with myself if I didn't give that brother my vote."
As the selection process moves forward, voters continually examine the issues and their concerns, and history comes into clearer focus: Mr. Obama's youth and his connection with largely white institutions such as Harvard University, for example. Michel Martin, host of "Tell Me More," an NPR show, recalled that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was 26 at the time of the Montgomery bus boycott and that he had a doctorate from Boston University.
One young woman said she was worried about being too openly pro-Obama, lest her interest damage his chances. Youthful black pride, looked upon with suspicion by some, could be more damaging than helpful, she suggested.
Callers and panel members told stories of divided families: husband for Mr. Obama, wife for Mrs. Clinton. And there were acute insights into apparent old-school forces at play: white males coming to terms with a Democratic field offering no white male candidate.
One caller said he'd probably vote for the more experienced candidate, Republican Sen. John McCain, if Mr. McCain is the candidate. Mr. Fauntroy of George Mason University wondered if such a thought didn't reveal someone who would be looking for a reason, any reason, to vote for the white male.
Near the end of the forum, a caller implored listeners to support Mr. Obama, who has risked his life to run. There is evil in the world, he said, so the man who is willing to challenge it - and who seems ready to lead - compels support.
Like many, he recalled the despair that swept this nation after the assassinations of the Kennedys and Dr. King. Euphoria could become despair in a heartbeat.
But hope was expressed, too.
"We are not the country we were 40 years ago," said Mr. Fauntroy.
And, said Keli Goff, author of a book on the hip-hop generation, "We can't live in fear for the rest of our lives."
C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.