Tuesday, January 20, 2009
God bless the Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery
Amen! And, amen!
She loved the rhythm and moral community sentiment.
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1. They really don't know what this guy lived through or did.
2. They are incapable of having a sense of humour or being teased.
3. Some are going over to the dark side faster than they think.
We travelled Amtrak from NYC at 5 AM, met my in-laws in a crowded Union Station in DC, took two cabs to well north of the White House and walked downhill to the Mall, arriving on the lawn in filtered fashion through the security gates at 9 AM.
We quickly joined a small band of about fifty thousand on one side of a section mid-way between the Capital and Lincoln Memorial. It was a homey cluster, the size of my hometown, gathered around one of several Jumbotrans, which worked beautifully. The hugging started early as we began to greet and meet those around us and an interest in keeping warm drew us close together. One young man was from Missouri, but he was the only one I met who was not from the east coast. Singing and chanting could be heard constantly and it seemed everyone had purchased a little American flag to wave. Some had Jamaican, Bajan, and Bahamian flags. Many people had Obama’s image somewhere on a cap, hat, sweatshirt, etc. We regretted not seeing more vendors on our way down to the mall to search for a Panamanian flag (my mother-in-law comes from Panama). One couple was Trinidadian, though the husband was from Tabago. They were from New York, too, but I never asked why people from T&T are called Trinidadian and Tabago gets left out. White folks were plentiful, too, though, don’t get me wrong. But they tended to keep to themselves. We are a private lot, comparatively, in the world. Or maybe I am just talking about Yankees mostly.
The next three hours were spent adjusting bunched up sweaters and corduroy shirts that tended to shift under coats and scarves with all the hugging, paying occasional attention to the pre-ceremony ceremonies, and talking about what a great and noble discomfort it was to be here. The buzz and electricity in the wider air seemed to always be there when we lifted our heads. We tried to get a view of the size of it all, but there was no way to take in the horizon toward the Capital or Lincoln Memorial – just too many people. We could see north and south, though, and knew we were positioned between the Smithsonian and the Museum of the American Indian.
People kept saying they wished they had brought a flask of something and talked about the best rum, the best roti, and the best places on the eastern seaboard to get them.
My daughter hung in there but only by keeping inside of a big band of people to keep the wind away.
All the pre Obama-oath festivities were drowned out by waves and waves of various cheers, singing, chanting, laughing, bouncing. When it came time for Obama's oath, though, a hush came down and crying ensued as we heard what we thought was a faulty speaker at the oath taking.
By this time, emotions all around - in my family and with so many in the immediate visual space - were oddly mixed with the sounds of chants and cheering from farther out on the mall in every direction. Obama's speech came through in parts, as his more forceful lines were greeted by cheers that blurred the next few lines he spoke. But for our collective of half a hundred, the tears and the amazement being spent to absorb the moments eclipsed his speech. We retrieved it later online.
Weariness and now an oblivion to cold and crowd brought a kind of halt to the hugs and excited talk that filled the first two or three hours. Most people seemed to be held in quiet interior reflection as we stayed out the last moments of the poem, chorus, and Rev Lowry’s prayer. We had come to a silent inwardness, still tearful but softer, and dispersed with cheers still going on but much less forceful.
Except for my daughter who kept the cold away by repeating and repeating and repeating Lowry's last refrains.
In the end it was a physically draining and emotionally draining experience of "being there" and absorbing the finality of completion of fourteen months of almost daily attachment to the news of the campaigns and the election. We worked to put ourselves in a position to share this half-day with more people than I have shared anything with, outside of taking the train to work with eight million New Yorkers. It created the physical experience that paralleled the calendar slog and the meaning was drawn from joining those around us in acknowledging what was wrought in this time of our lives.
The inaugural pomp and circumstance was lost for those of us without tickets, amid the masses, the fences, the security, and the travel, the cold and the wind. We tried to find a bar with room to fit afterward, but the old folks weren't that interested and neither was my daughter. We eventually grabbed cabs back to Union Station, got some food and waited for our trains back to NY and NJ respectively.
I have to say, as an observer/participant and inside man so to speak, that for black Americans there is a tremendous amount of importance that is not rooted in Barack's political achievement. It is not that a black man achieved supreme political power that is the ground of their pride and inspiration. It is not even Barack alone as a figure. Black families, especially middle class black families, have been as supportive of Democrats and political causes as they are of Barack's politics. They rejoice as Democrats that he occupies the White House and they feel that his cabinet picks are “pretty good” and have various reservations according to personal opinion.
But it is the whole family that brings the tears and the swell of emotion. Barack was hardly mentioned without Michelle, the girls, AND the mother being mentioned as well.
Michelle is an example of professional success and good motherhood, done without out-sourcing every task but done with her mother's help. Michelle is a great pride for black women of all ages. The delight the country is taking in the girls is the delight black girls have always missed in the wider public. The grandmother represents how so many black families operate in an extended mode that is cohesive, supportive, and geared for success and providing their children with opportunity and love, contra popular representation of broken and isolated families.
Black people have been hungry for the decades since MLK to have white America and the world see black people who are whole and healthy, to see black people held up as equal heroes to white achievers and not from the realm of sports or pop art. It is the respect that is wanted, not the power per se.
Black girls still choose white dolls in studies, particularly in working neighborhoods. Black people grow up having to come to understand and shed the influences of television, magazines, and dominant culture conversations that lead them to feel as children that their hair, their skin, their being is not normal, that they don't really belong.
These suspicions often are confirmed by the responses of teachers, employers, even friends, and they all have to do the work of exorcizing these demons in late adolescence and early adulthood.
This hurt is inside every African-American with whom I am intimately familiar. The work has been done by every African-American I know that has succeeded in life.
A Democrat in the White House is what they want. Respect is what they need and are due.
They feel they got both yesterday.
And they hope (with less tentativeness than ever) it is a harbinger of permanent change.