For my husband, two daughters, the in-laws and I, our days flowed into one from Friday, January 16th to Wednesday January 21, as we prepare in anticipation for our new president, Barack Obama. These days, we have marked as the five most important days of our lives as black people in America.
When I received the notification from the Presidential Inaugural Committee that they wanted us to be among the first to know about the sale of the 5,000 tickets for the historic Inaugural Parade to begin on January 9th, at 1:00 p.m., together we began to call at 1pm sharp. As luck would have it, we triumphed – so off to DC we went.
Apart from the usual stop and go traffic on the George Washington Bridge from NY to Jersey, it was smooth sailings all the way to Arlington Virginia, where we stayed.
We went sightseeing all day Saturday and purchased hats, t-shirts, bags, flags, posters, buttons, key rings – you name it– anything we could find with Obama face on it (and believe me his face was plastered on everything).
We had an absolutely fantastic time at the star-studded concert on the mall on Sunday, which, by the way, was FREE. The whole crowd came to get their party on, it seemed because by the way we screamed, hollered and danced, you would have thought we’d paid and was trying to get our money’s worth. There were so many celebrities in attendance. Some who spoke and performed were Denzel Washington, Beyoncé, John Legend, Usher, Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, Will.i.Am
It was at the concert that we got our first glimpse of President Obama and First Lady, Michelle, in the flesh. Words cannot express the feeling, the hush and the looks of amazement that was present on the faces of the people around me. I felt such an engulfing flood of pride that I thought my heart would burst!
I was not able to keep from embarrassing my entire family as I openly and unashamedly howled, loud and long. I let the tears flow like a released dam. I cried from the pit of my stomach. I cried for all the people from whose sweat, blood and tears we were now benefitting. I let my tears flow into a puddle, as if to will it the omnipresent spirits of my ancestors as a way to say, thank you, I appreciate what you have done and promise to do everything in my power to help our president as he leads our journey to the Promised Land.
I had flashbacks of my early days in Jamaica when the people of the community and the church would gather together to collect money, give home-made gifts, celebrate and “send off” the next member of said community who “got through” to go to America, Canada or England. I was very young when my mother was “sent off” in that same manner. With 9 children and a husband left behind, she left in search of a better way. I remember as if it was yesterday, as she got ready to take the bus to the airport. I remember the song that was playing on the radio on the Reverend VB gospel service –
I’ll meet you in the morning by the bright riverside
When all sorrow has drifted away
I’ll be standin’ at the portals when the gates open wide
At the close of life’s long weary day
I’ll meet you in the morning with a how do you do
And we’ll sit down by the river and when all the rapture is renewed
You’ll know me in the morning by the smile that I wear
When I meet you in the morning In the city that is built four square
I will meet you in the morning in the sweet by and by
And exchange the old cross for a crown
There will be no disappointments and nobody shall die
In that land when life’s sun goeth down
On that cold Thursday morning way back in 1969, I remembered thinking that my mother was going to that place.
It was only 2 years later when we joined our mother in America. It was not quite the paradise that I imagined and read about in books, but it was a place that we quickly grew to love as much as we loved our birthplace, Jamaica. Our transition to America was smooth back then, because we applied the discipline we learned in our Primary schools in Jamaica and did not forget the pride and principle that ends with being Jamaican – I CAN! So, it was easy for me to say YES! WE CAN!!
I have brothers who’ve fought in American wars, sisters who’ve been civil servants and many co-workers and friends who’ve died on September 11th. I have marched with community activists, spoken out against unfair treatment on my college campus, boycotted institutions, participated in protests, demonstrations, sit-ins and walk-outs, volunteered in soup kitchens and have always been doing my part to ensure that we as Americans continue the fight against unfair treatment and discrimination. I cried for those days when we celebrated Dr. King’s words, but did not believe that in our lifetime, we would see a black man become the leader of the free world – one who was judged by the CONTENT OF HIS CHARACTER AND NOT THE COLOR OF HIS SKIN. As unbelievable as it had been for me, I was now a believer…and as I looked at our future president the day before he was sworn in, I cried harder and deeper as I experienced this unspeakably euphoric transformation.
We set out at 5:30 am on Tuesday to witness the swearing in of our president. The Metro was already packed with people and running behind schedule “because of congestion”. People were dressed in layers, in preparation for 13 degree weather that we were about to face. Young babies, teenagers, mothers, grandparents of all races rode the packed train, all with a looking around with enthusiasm and wide smiles. Some started to sing songs, as we wait for the train to proceed.
One lady (a senior citizen) started to talk about her journey to the inauguration from Selma Alabama and was tearful as she expressed how much it meant to her to be on the train with so many different people on her way to the inauguration. She said that she is most happy that the “country is finally growing up and embracing people of different races and creeds as real people. She talked about her experience in Selma as a child and how proud her parents would have been for our President. She said that she feel s that black America has now regained their self-esteem as a people. Slowly and circumspectly she sang the words to “Old Man River”.
The crowd cheered and encouraged others to talk about why this inauguration meant so much to them. Everyone was touched by what we heard from both the young and the old. One young lady shouted from the back of the train, “my great grandfather was a sharecropper and my great grandmother taught many, many people to read, back in Memphis after she’d taught herself, and if they were physically here with us today, I know that they would be singing loudly and proudly,” and she began to sing…
Never would have made it, never could have made it, without you
I would have lost it all, but now I see how you were there for me
Never would have made it,
Never could have made it,
I would have lost it all,
But I now how I see how you were there for me and I can say
I’m stronger, I’m wiser, I’m better,
When I look back over all you brought me thru.
I can see that you were the one that I held on to
And I never
Never would have made it, never would have made it,
There was not a dry eye as far as I could see as everyone, black and white, young and old joined hands and arms and rocked with the rhythm of the now slow moving train, singing along with her…we are stronger, we are wiser, we are better, soooo much better…we’ve made it!!!!
No doubt they were journalists, the people who started to push their way to the front with pens in hand asking for correct spelling of names and places and clarification to parts of stories missed.
I am sure no one noticed that we were sitting in the tunnel for over 30 minutes. This was genuinely a remarkable experience for me. The train ride on inauguration day will go down as one of the most memorable and poignant moments of this event.
When the train finally made it into Union Station, the crowds had grown to the thousands. I could not believe the number of people who were making their way to the mall. Before we even left the station, people had started to chant -BAM-A, O-BAM-A, O-BAM-A, O-BAM-A!!! That was carried out to the streets where others joined in. We went through tight security which included thoroughly searching all bags, coats etc. as well as sniffing dogs. Everyone acted in a professional manner and showed patience and cooperation. The military and the police officers were polite, accommodating and acted in good spirits, considering the time of day and the temperature.
We made it on to the mall, but in no way close enough to see him so we huddled together as close as we could to one of the many JumboTrons that wasn’t too far from the porta potties (portable toilets), because with the number of people present on the mall, there is no way on God’s earth they could be serviced with so few conveniences.
The wait was long and the weather was cold, but we did everything we could to stay warm, from taking turns waving our huge Jamaican flag to jumping in place, to having random group hugs, which included a new addition from the crowd each time. It was bizarre but fun.
Before we knew it, the time was upon us and our president was about to be announced. When he walked out, the silence was deafening…you could hear a pin drop. Everyone stood and stared at the screens as if they were in shock. The best way I could describe the moment we stood there and awaited his arrival to the podium was a feeling of intense fullness, jubilance and PRIDE. Then it started…the chants of -BAM-A, O-BAM-A, O-BAM-A, O-BAM-A could be heard like a mighty thunder that continued to roll, even after he had started to speak.
Everyone seemed inspired, motivated and ready to face many and real challenges. We chose HOPE and we want to see him succeed. We felt as if nothing could stop us…nothing. Not now, not ever. As we slowly made our way back to watch the parade, with frozen feet and frost-bitten fingers and faces, we laughed and cried, shook hands with police officers, military men and women, fire fighters and volunteers with yellow bibs and scarf-covered faces – we sang songs and chatted cheerfully, as we made our way to the parade route.
We thought that it could have been better planned in terms of guiding the crowd and helping to provide a way for the very young and the very old to get around easier after having to walk for two hours, in search of an opened Metro station, but similar to the fight we face as we support our new President, people were warned repeatedly about the logistical difficulties we would come across, so many were prepared to keep moving to the next station and determined not to lose patience…or hope. People were seen sharing their sandwiches and waters with others, helping the older folks and carrying the younger ones, just to help them to make it to the next station.
Despite my years of living in America and my activism, I am not ashamed to say that I had never really felt as if I owned a part of the black struggle. Well, after this emotional experience in Washington DC, today, I feel the change. I can now hold my head high and say I am proud to be an American who was born in Jamaica…as I hum along with Aretha…My Country Tis of Thee, Sweet Land of Liberty… from every mountainside let freedom ring!
On Tuesday, January 20, 2009, my family and I all took something special away from the experience and together we made a pledge that includes the following:
As we pursue this journey to deliver the gift of freedom, there will be challenges and disappointments. We will need to sacrifice now more than ever, and as we join believers and convert or discharge non-believers, we will remember the Butterfly Effect – the idea that a butterfly’s wings as light and tiny as they are, might create changes in the atmosphere that may ultimately alter the path of a tornado or delay, accelerate or even prevent the occurrence of a tornado.
We are stronger, wiser and better than those who try to hold us back and must renew our resolve to march on. We will celebrate but will not forget that the harder work is still ahead of us. We pledge to do whatever it takes to contribute to the journey, so that we [as a people] can effectively make it to the Promised Land!