Inauguration 2009: End of an Error, Beginning of a Movement

January 20, 2009 was a day of rewriting and redefining possibilities in America. It was a day of triumph and celebration, of sacrifice and tears. A beautiful black family, full of love and no stranger to hard times, will enter the history books as 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama, begins his journey as Head of State.

I initially did not want to go to the inauguration. I planned to go to D.C. the day before to see good friends who live in the city and reunite with college friends; but watching Obama enter office didn’t really lodge into my brain as something to do. When I told a friend of mine over the phone my plans for MLK Monday (and my non-existent plans for the next day), she was pissed at me.

“You’d come up here to visit your friends, but you don’t want to see history?!”

“Well,” I replied, “when you put it that way… nope.”

“Girl, you’d better get your head right. If you want to stay with me while you’re here, let me know.”

“I’ll think about it,” I smirked.

“I can’t believe you!”

After we disconnected I noticed a lot of emails and tweets to meet up with fellow bloggers while in D.C. or in Baltimore, and I became more and more turned off. I am not a social butterfly, and I felt fearful that I would make poor company. I shut myself away from all the solicitations until the Sunday before inaugural. Sunday changed everything.

My grandmother was still in rehabilitation at the time (she’s home now, and able to walk and climb steps moderately well). I went to visit her along with my mother, and she was waiting patiently for live concert coverage from the Lincoln Memorial. We watched Anderson Cooper interview a black family from New Orleans, and then she decided she wanted to sit in her wheelchair.

After three minutes and refusing assistance, she made her way from the bed to her wheelchair with confidence. She faced me and asked if I planned to watch the inauguration.

Ignoring my mother’s glare, I told her I had been thinking about going. I told her I planned to see friends Monday, and a friend offered to let me stay at her place Tuesday. “I guess it would be a good thing to see…”

She smiled and agreed. “It would be good. I remember when Dr. King came to Detroit, and I left your mom and the kids with George [my grandfather] and went to see him. He appeared before a packed arena, and the overflow crowd sat outside on the ground to hear him. You could hear a pin drop while his voice came in through the speakers.” My smile matched hers. “I would not stay away. Young people always had to take to the streets. It was dangerous, crowded — sure — but you couldn’t keep them away.”

I nodded. Going to D.C. Tuesday was looking more appealing. The subject shifted to portion control and weight loss and, inevitably, to history.

My grandmother started describing a day in the cotton fields as a little girl growing up in the South, in the late 1930s/early 1940s. The truck drove around to the different houses, picking up workers to pick cotton all day, around 7 a.m. Before leaving, you always had a big breakfast because you’d spend most of the day burning it off.

If you were a kid, you received a bag about 5 feet wide and 10 feet long. Made of burlap, canvas — a thick, heavy material — and you’d have the strap wrapped around your shoulder and chest. There were no such things as break times; often a man would ride around on a horse and make sure everyone continued to work. If you stopped, you didn’t get paid.

Sometimes you got lucky: the cotton plants would grow high, and you wouldn’t have to bend over to pick it. Sometimes you weren’t so lucky, and you’d work on your knees from sun-up to sundown. The worst days were the days where the dew would coat the cotton plants and the field, with low-growing crops. You’d have to wade your way through the mud, feeling it squish beneath your knees. When the midday sun hit, you had the chance to wipe it off your pants as it dried.

Midday sun above your head — noon — was also the clarion call to lunch. How lunch operated depended on whose field you worked that day. Some fields had general stores, where you could buy Vienna sausages, pork and beans, sardines and eat them within the half-hour window before hitting the fields again. Others would have nice owners whose wives and children would ask the cook to prepare something small for the workers on the field. After you ate, you resumed picking cotton until the sun went down. Pay collected for the household, truck drops you home.

With a smile, my grandmother said, “You don’t really recognize history as you living it; it’s only after you think about it… of course we could eat heavier meals! We weren’t sitting still all of the time.” I smiled and nodded, and she told me about the process they took for washing clothes before the washing machine.

Thank God for Whirlpool. You know how sometimes people minimize the fact that women of color often serve as washing women and cleaning ladies for middle- to upper-class families, as if vacuums and Swiffers and Whirlpool and Tide were around forever? Well, let’s just say for washing and ironing clothes alone, there were more than 20 different steps to the process — including retrieving wood for a fire and water for the washtub and cleaning pot. My grandmother outlined every step, and those steps went for every piece of clothing, from the small handkerchiefs to the heavy handmade quilts. My eyes began to glaze over. Clearly I would have been the dirty, embarrassing family member. (No, I wouldn’t have. Slovenliness wasn’t allowed back then, especially not under my great- and great-great grandmothers’ watches.)

My grandmother lived to cook and eat delicious homegrown and homemade feasts, to literally burn the midnight oil with her kerosene lamp while in school, to sit outside and listen to King speak. My grandmother scrapbooked black firsts — like the first black pilot to own and fly his plane. My grandmother, understandably, is overrun with Obama paraphrenalia because she was absolutely delighted to live to see the first black president. A big first, and a very memorable one.

***

So nothing could keep me from D.C. by that point. I traveled via the MARC commuter train from Baltimore that Monday. I very nearly missed my train, in fact. Huge lines clogged the Amtrak ticket window — but luckily, I was one of the brave souls who could use the kiosk for a quick purchase. I hit D.C. a little before noon, and spent a great day exploring Georgetown and DuPont Circle with my college friends. Huge pizza slices, splurging on Belgian and Swiss Truffles (great for side orders of depression post-Inaugural, let me tell you what), and laughing as my friends hovered around the Big Penis Book at Lambda Rising (an excellent LGBTQQI book haven) — we had so much fun.

the giant IMPEACH ME sign on his back.

Not pictured: the giant IMPEACH ME sign on his back.

Also on that day, a 420 marijuana legalization and pro-Bush impeachment group hosted a huge to-do in the middle of Dupont Circle, to wishing Bush a fond farewell. Or, should I say, Bushnocchio. A variety of different shoes rested at ol’ Dubya’s feet. I threw a few (and may have missed and hit actual people in the crowd — sorry!) and my friends started up a rousing cheer of “na na na na, na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye!”

The cameraman filming the shoe throwing event thought we were American Idol quality and taped us singing it, telling us that there were plans to send the footage overseas. I may be more than net famous, y’all! And believe me, there’s no better feeling than clipping a faux-Bush on the shoulder with a clog. After that event, I realized we were not only there to welcome our first black president, but also to say farewell to one of the worst misunderestimated jackasses in history. I knew by that point I’d made the right decision about coming.

You don’t recognize history until after you’ve lived it.

***

I slept restlessly. Would I make it to see my friend the next day? Would I travel to the right location? What if I fucked this up?

The morning of January 20th, I made plans to meet a friend who scored tickets for watching the inauguration. She offered to let me stay with her in Maryland; but I already had a spot in D.C. I felt totally psyched to meet her because she’s a fellow blogger and honored that she thought enough to get a ticket for me. Seriously, I offered her my soul; but I may have to settle for taking her out to dinner if she swings down to the D.C./MD area again.

But around 7 a.m. that Tuesday, the problem was meeting her. I hate traveling through cities alone unless it’s Baltimore. I don’t quite reach the point of agoraphobia; but I am hypervigilant about getting where I need to be at the time I planned to be there. So although I deserted my very gracious host and her family, I made sure to ask exactly where to get off the Metro first. Okay, maybe a couple of times. I was scared!

Before boarding the Metro, I bought the Inaugural day trip ticket at an inflated cost ($10?! 100% price increase!) and I collected the free items that a nearby church distributed. I opted not to buy the $5 early edition Washington Post because… well… that’s ridiculous. Point blank.

The first line I rode on in D.C. was all right. Not too packed. My friend, her family, and I even got a whole car to ourselves. It was hilarious watching her cousins rib on each other, and it reminded me of my own family. All good, except I envied the fact their phones worked well underground, and mine was in its usual P.O.S. condition. I received many bribes for my ticket; but my grandmother’s words trumped everything. This was history; the ticket stays with me.

The second line I transferred to: pan. de. mo. ni. um. People were everywhere, and I even turned down a train when it appeared I’d get a little too intimate with my fellow travelers. Luckily, the trains were running back-to-back like clockwork. I reached the spot where I was scheduled to meet my friend about fifteen minutes late; but she left me a message saying she’d be running behind as well. I sent her a text and left her a phone message while standing in front of One Judiciary Square and not freezing. Yet.

She texted me a couple minutes later! Success! I spotted her from a Flickr pic I checked that morning, and I greeted a small group of folks who traveled with the Obama campaign to volunteer time and money towards this event. They were extremely kind and friendly. I felt good. History! *soul clap*

We made our way down First Street where apparently someone had erected a barrier on the F street intersection. Naturally, I thought, this huge crowd of people would defer to the barrier somehow. There is order in this chaos. And, of course there wasn’t. Hundreds — if not thousands — of people pushed and crushed against this small barrier, traveling towards the intersection or trying to get out of the crowd of people. My friend and I got separated during one tricky turn, and luckily others from the group and I remained close (perhaps too close) in the throng of very disgruntled people. There were calls for a medic, and all of us were pushing against something. The negative side effect of collective change, surely.

“EXCUSE ME. EXCUSE ME.” Crowdgoers collectively cursed members of D.C.’s finest as they pushed us into elbows and legs, nearly knocking us over. When it’s common sense to identify yourself as a police officer to clear a crowd, we get the Miss Manners approach. If manners would have worked, I’d be able to breathe without feeling as if I’d suffocate. Cute, you bastards. I smirked as some vindictive crowd members shoved back.

The Purple Gate of Squishitude

The Purple Gate of Squishitude

With perseverance and involuntary propulsion forward, our group finally made it out of the crowd to the less congested area just across the street. It would be more amusing if it weren’t pathetic. We did a head count and moved toward the Capitol, purple tickets in hand. We hit the less infamous Purple Gate (the one that didn’t lead to the Purple Tunnel of Doom). I clutched my ticket as if it were a bailout pass. Knowing I was within reach of the Capitol kept me more sane as the crowd pushed against our new, friendlier gate. Not even strange phantom sightings of Mariah Carey could deter us.

Once we cleared the awning, squeezed through the metal gate while waving our purple tickets in the air (a “checkpoint”), crossed Pennsylvania Avenue, and hit the security section, we finally stepped foot on the Capitol lawn. The band played as throngs of people made their way to a standing space. We were just in time to watch the ceremony.

***

Arboreal enemy, one day my notebook will have remnants of you.  The Capitol.

Arboreal enemy, one day my notebook will have remnants of you. The Capitol.

In the shadow of the Capitol, I wish they’d arranged the crowd by height — tall folks in the BACK, please! A tall (yet cute) mofo stood right in front of me. Sorry Mister, your cute smile is not enough to let me forgive you for being blessed with inches. (Double entendres are my not-so-secret joy!) I bounced in place along with my friend as we cursed the tree conveniently growing in front of the jumbotron screen (damn you, arboreal mofo!) and snapped not-so-great pictures of the Capitol with my intellectually challenged phone.

During quite a few of the announcements, the crowd had predictable reactions to the arrivals of important politicians:

  • Shrub and the missus received hearty and resounding boos from the crowd, at which point the band tried to drown us out. Luckily, we were persistent.
  • Hillary & the President Clenis received a mixed reaction; apparently some folks were still resentful of the race baiting and attacks from the primaries.
  • Former President Jimmy Carter received a bevy of cheers and whistles. The legendary good guys — you gotta love ’em.
  • A bunch of folks were announced to the resounding echoes and waves of “who?” (And my thoughts of “how did those mofos get a seat up there before me?!”)
  • VP Elect Joe, Dr. Jill, and Beau received hearty applause and cries. Love them both.
  • Just guess how Michelle, the cuties Sasha and Malia, and the soon-to-no-longer-be-President-Elect were greeted. (There were many whispered and in-depth conversations about what Michelle was wearing, by the way. Sparkleponies: we come in masses.) The band didn’t bother trying anything at those points. The Obamacans chanted his name for a good three or four minutes.

Finally, we were ready for the invocation from Rev. Rick. The boos returned, with cries of hypocrite spliced in intervals. I’m a Christian, and try as I’d might, I couldn’t bow my head in communion with him. I asked my friend to let me snap a pic of a solemn and poignant protest to his appearance at this event. I even snickered at the boos when the dear reverend passive-aggressively attempted to shame the crowd for heckling him without fear. And I couldn’t help but sneer as he pointed out Obama’s status as a son of an African immigrant. Get my President’s name out of your mouth.

Really y’all. You couldn’t miss ‘Retha. My friend and I instantly christened her The Original Sparklepony Feminist because of that wonderful hat she sported. We were in the presence of double royalty. She sang beautifully. (Pre-recorded or not, haters.)

Even though my arboreal nemesis blocked the Jumbotron, everything could be heard very well. So during Justice Stevens’ swearing-in of Biden, every word was delivered to absolute silence. We cheered like maniacs once Biden was announced as the Vice President of the United States.

The Obama oath? Not so seamless.

Cheering ensued as the President-elect made his way in front of Chief Justice Roberts. It stopped as soon as Roberts opened his mouth, and we all heard… police sirens.

That’s right. Apparently D.C.’s finest decided the moment Obama started taking his oath, it was time to squad up somewhere near Pennsylvania Avenue. The crowd’s anger was palpable, because within 10 seconds of starting, every squad car’s siren went completely silent. Assholes.

When Chief Justice Roberts introduced President Obama to the world, the screams started… and then shifted to confusion as the traditional cannons blasted. We could feel the earth moving under our feet, and some people were looking for terror alerts. I couldn’t help but perform a weird mix of laughter, crying, and cheering. The day had finally come. We waited anxiously for his address, and the crowd stood electrified as we were asked to work hard, to keep our integrity, and we heard welcome words about the restoration of science (my friend shrieked) and prioritizing education (I bounced). Change was imminent, and we were hearing it from Our New President. Our First Black President. Rousing applause, cheers, losing my voice, choked up in this moment…

My God. How far we’ve come in these years.

***

I swayed a little to the (pre-recorded) classical piece played for the inauguration. I laughed as people began heading out before listening to the poem read by Elizabeth Alexander, “Praise Song for the Day.” I have to admit that the poem’s effect fizzled on me while hearing it read, and I think the crowd sat confused before it applauded her efforts. (It’s a much better read; trust me.)

The true electrifying capper came from Rev. Joseph Lowery in his rousing, humorous, heartbreaking, and beautiful benediction. He captured the mixed feelings of a nation and sent them up to Jesus. I prayed and laughed with him. It was the moment we needed to release the tension of the moment, the wound-up muscles and appreciate the truth of what just happened. It was done. We only had to look back only a few minutes and reflect on the fact we saw history. It felt so wonderful living it.

The End of an Error.  Sayonara, Shrub.

The End of an Error. Sayonara, Shrub.

After reviving the song of farewell as Bush’s helicopter carried him back to hell or Crawford, TX (whatever was closest), I held my heart for a moment. It was done. It was done. The night was spent watching the parade in the warmth of a tavern (say howdy to Colonel Brooks!) after having some organic free-trade noms (the spot was aptly named, no?), buying and sporting some Obama bling (that’s how we do it up right, motherfuckers), and basking in the glow of a world in which anything felt possible. Trusting The Beast to carry Obama to his White House home.

And getting pissed when our Gangsta President had the NERVE to get out of The damned Beast TWICE! Get your ass back in that car! And did you see Michelle holding his hand. And Dr. Jill in red! Fierce! And, and… So many things I could say, but this needs to stop before the tears return. It’s all over but the crying.

I am still basking in the glow of a world in which anything is possible — from the very worst to the very best, and all that falls in between.

***

On January 20th I felt the same tightness in my heart that I felt when Obama won the election on November 4th, that I felt when I saw his wife and two daughters for the first time. I felt the same love and fear I had when I first heard that this black man — for all intents and purposes — would attempt a presidential bid. I no longer looked at the campaigning for the job as an implicit suicide note.

“Hello, all. I am educated, ambitious, accomplished, and black. Please carry me through hell to earn the highest office in the United States, and be careful not to leave me there.”

I feel extremely lucky and blessed to have stood out on the lawn of the Capitol while watching the inaugural oaths, daring to inhale deeply and resist the urge to hold my breath until after Obama was confirmed. My toes were numb and my phone was for all intents and purposes dead (perhaps wisely) — but who did I really have to call or contact? Everyone I knew, no matter how far away they were, would watch this moment, now or later, now and forever. They would see and share this moment with me and billions of others. What had I to say or to lose?

I felt the earth shake under my feet as the cannons blasted. I felt my brain and my heart sink to my stomach as President Obama issued a call for work, duty, strength, outreach to the poor of this country and the world, the value of science, the importance of education, and a call to put away childish things. I felt grown. I still feel it, and I responded to each call with “yes.” Not a blind affirmation, not a mutter of an automaton, but a confident assent to understanding what it means to be a citizen of the United States.

The great responsibilities I owe to people who do not have citizenship, the duty to take to the streets and fight among poor people, to speak out against injustice and to extend my hand. To do the work. I consented to the hopes that if I acted to make a change in America, it would not be a small action, and it would not be in vain.

For the first time in my adult life, my very short and convoluted adult life, I am proud of my country. I am emboldened by the living history in my family as represented by my grandmother, and the fact that a woman — who started out picking cotton in the fields before her head reaches an adult’s kneecap, who raised six children as a widow and then went on to get her master’s degree, who sat outside on the ground in Detroit to hear Dr. King speak — that woman watched President Obama take the oath of office and walk down Pennsylvania Avenue. That woman lived to see yet another new and glorious change from the times of her childhood and early adulthood.

I want so much for this world to change. I want so badly to be a part of that change, to feel the good move into its rightful place. I’m a young person; I have idealism on my side. But now it looks like there’s also a power willing to listen to those ambitions and ideals. I feel galvanized, and that is an understatement.

It’s time to move. Change is the season for our reborn nation.

5 Responses to “Inauguration 2009: End of an Error, Beginning of a Movement”

  1. Kathy says:

    There’s not much I can add to what Kyle said. Your writing is exquisite.

  2. SylviaM says:

    Thank you both. 🙂

  3. terry says:

    Sylvia,

    That was lovely. I’m so glad you went. I was there with my family but back by the Lincoln Memorial. People don’t understand why we watched it outside on the big screen when we could have just watched on TV, inside and warm.

    All I can say is you had to be there :-).

  4. radical_Moderate says:

    “I held my heart for a moment. It was done. It was done.”

    My feelings exactly on both election night and on the 20th.

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