I’ve been wanting to write about my trip to Washington this week, about standing among the nearly 2 million who witnessed Barack Hussein Obama take the oath of office to be the 44th President of the United States. I tell you it’s not easy to put this one into perspective. That’s how big it is.
I was going to talk about the day, how we got up early and made it down to the Mall and stood in line for hours and all the people we met and saw and how it felt to be standing there the very second President-elect Barack Obama became President Barack Obama.
But there was something else that happened Tuesday, to me and everyone who was there, bearing witness to a line in history that will mark the moment when America really changed.
It was the largest crowd for an inauguration in the history of the country. Why did so many people feel like they had to be there. I know many people were there because they wanted to witness an historic event -- there’s only one first African-American president – but I think there’s something bigger going on. A much deeper and broader cut into the American landscape.
I saw it on Tuesday first hand. It was on the faces of almost every black person I saw. I saw pride and joy, of course, but I also saw something else, a kind of ownership of the moment. One older black woman told me it was the first time in her life she felt like a real American. Which is fucked up, but it’s true for many American blacks.
For no matter how much progress we’ve made as a nation, discrimination, racism, ethnic stereotyping not only exists but it has many apologists. And while some people will always get advantages that others won’t, the dream that any kid could grow up to be President of the United States was an empty one if you didn’t happen to be white and male. Tuesday that all changed. For every child in America, it’s a brave new world. We don’t have to lie to them anymore. It’s not about equality as much as it’s about possibilities. Hope is here and its real and it’s taking up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. A black man is in the White House. You cannot make it any clearer than that. I love the portent of this moment in American history if only because it’s a rare, concrete moment where we can say without irony that the ideals of our nation, the building blocks of Democracy – fairness, openness, free debate, charity, tolerance and curiosity – aren’t just empty slogans. They’re real.
I imagine a scene that took place Wednesday morning in classrooms all across the country, where all the kids, no matter race or gender, could add a new story to their dreams. “I can do – or be -- anything. I can even be President of the United States.” Anyone who doesn’t think this makes the whole world a better place is just clinging to the past. A past that is dead and buried, relegated to the graveyard of history. It’s not a white man’s world anymore. Oh sure, they’re hanging on for dear life, but now even they know the truth. Rush Limbaugh knows – that’s why he said with glee how he hopes Obama will fail. Because if he succeeds, than Limbaugh is just another dinosaur soon to be extinct.
The moment right after Obama was sworn-in on Tuesday, it seemed to me that the crowd took a beat before erupting in cheers. A hiccup in time. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I think it was collective shock, disbelief at what had just occurred. Like we all needed a moment to let the gravity of it all sink in. President Barack Hussein Obama. We all needed time to pinch ourselves.
It was at that moment that I stood up and the man, a stranger, sitting next to me stood up too and we looked around like we were lost. And then I offered my hand and he shook it. And then we embraced. Two strangers in a sea of strangers holding on to each other, celebrating a shared moment that reinforced our shared humanity.
And it’s not temporary. There’s no turning back now. Because somewhere in America, there’s a little boy or girl who dreams of being President and nobody can tell them it can’t happen.
‘Cause it just did.