By Shirley Staples CarterProfessor of Journalism, University of South Carolina

As Barack Obama is sworn in as the 44thPresident of the United States, like most Americans, I am in awe of the historic significance of the moment, even as it comes at an unsettling time in our history.

Martin Luther King Day

We are all aware that as president, Obama will face great challenges in his efforts to deliver on the major promises of his campaign: economic recovery, health care and educational reform, ending the war in Iraq while galvanizing troops in Afghanistan, and addressing growing conflict in the Middle East. Yet Americans remain hopeful according to a recent New York Times/CBS News Poll that suggests 79 per cent of respondents are optimistic about the next four year years and are willing to give the new president even more time to resolve the critical problems that await him and to deliver on his campaign promises.

In recent speeches prior to his inaugural address, Obama has tried to strike a balance between optimism and realism, hope and sacrifice, temper expectations, and challenge us to a new kind of civic engagement. His post-election themes have been consistent, not promising too much while being full of promise.

That was quite evident during the pre-inaugural "We Are One" concert on Sunday at the Lincoln Memorial, a fitting backdrop for the jubilant, celebratory and patriotic event. In his address, the president-elect reminded the audience that:

"...our road will be long, our climb will be steep, but never forget that the true character of our nation is revealed not during times of comfort and ease, but by the right we do when the moment is hard."

The star-studded performances and theme of the event echoed those sentiments. But can we really embrace the belief that we can recognize ourselves in one another, that "we are one?"

This may be the ultimate promise of an Obama administration at a time in America when we begin the process of bridging our divides, whether racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, religious, sexual orientation, or partisan. His 2004 address at the Democratic convention comes to mind as being particularly prophetic.

Expectations are high on all fronts. African-Americans, for example, see Mr. Obama's election as the fulfillment of a King's dream and an "overcoming" of a significant barrier to racial equality. However, as the son of an African father and white mother from Kansas, he may embody for all of us the hope for renewal and validation of this country's greatness and ability to transform itself.

His call on us to serve our communities and therefore our country echoes the messages of previous presidents in times of crisis and suggests a new view of the role of government and our own responsibility as American citizens to help him renew America. The inspirational campaign theme of change is now an invocation to us to "be the change."

On Inauguration Day we will celebrate this special moment in American history. Afterwards, we will awaken to the dawn of the Obama era, the beginning of a nationwide spirit of unity and service. For me, the moment will be especially poignant, having grown up as a patriotic American with in a family with parents who instilled in my siblings and me a deep faith and "traditional values." But it was tough to be an African-American coming of age in the Jim Crow-era of the Deep South. I attended segregated secondary schools and have vivid memories of singing one song in particular, "My Country Tis of Thee," but having only a vague notion of what it meant. Listening to Josh Groban and Heather Headley sing it during the "We Are One" concert on Sunday however, I was more contemplative, as though I was hearing the song for the first time and the lyrics held deep meaning for me, at that moment in time. I felt like a part of something larger than myself, as though we were one, and ready to be a part of the change that will be necessary for all of us in the days ahead.