Standing in freezing temperatures, jammed packed in the National Mall like sardines, and with feet swelling from standing in one place for hours, I finally heard the words I never thought I’d hear a person of color say in my lifetime: “I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States…” Well, at least it went sort of like that. President Obama arguably pulled off the first Bushism of his tenure while initially stammering through the oath. But in his defense, it was ridiculously cold and he was in front of almost 2 million people in one place; let alone the tens – perhaps hundreds – of millions watching around the globe. The occasional nervous stammer is expected. But I digress.
One linguistic episode aside, this inauguration ceremony reflects one of the most important moments in the history of this country. This moment is directly defiant to the shameful years of our past and is a signpost for a promising future. People of all ages, races, and backgrounds gathered to watch this event unfold; an event which emphatically closed the door on America’s once prevalent and adolescent mindset that only a certain kind of person could be President. Now being ushering in is a new wave of hope and confidence.
But now, it’s the day after. The confetti has been swept away. It’s back to work we go.
For us to truly recognize the significance of the day and of this time in our history, a different type of thinking and practice is necessary. For starters, this event must make us more conscious of the shameful history paving the way for us to arrive at this point. The process for putting a man like Barack Obama in this position did not start with the inaugural ceremonies. It did not start with an impressive Election Day victory. It did not start with Obama accepting his party’s nomination for President. His propellant victory in Iowa was not where the movement started. For that matter, not even Obama announcing his intentions to run on that cold day two years ago began this process. These moments merely underscored a chain of events tracing back decades. The inauguration of President Obama was a fulfillment of entire centuries-worth of anonymous people not remembered in history books, but who were crucial to what we are enjoying today. They suffered, fought, and died for an event in which they would never take part. We owe this all to them by honoring them using a multipronged approach.
First as we commemorate this as a critical point in our nation’s maturation, it is important that this does not simply become the period at the end of a sentence. I pray that as a nation we do not allow Obama’s election to become the impetus for complacency. While I am thrilled that America has finally opened its arms to the reality of a person of color, it was certainly not an unconditional acceptance. I’ve hinted before that weight of an unpopular predecessor was carried by the McCain/Palin ticket; only to be magnified when the economy collapsed. At that point, an Obama victory was almost inevitable. Besides all of that, Obama had to be a certain kind of candidate during his run. Any endorsement of Jeremiah Wright’s statements, for instance (comments on which I and most black people in this country actually cosign to some extent) would have spelled immediate defeat in a general election. Though I suspect Obama truly wanted to find solvency with the issue of race by parting from the discussion altogether, had he even wanted to engage in some of the difficult conservations about this nation and race relations, McCain would have no doubt been the man being sworn in yesterday. This reality underscores an important point: we have progressed significantly with race relations, but we still have a long ways to go.
Secondly, I think it is crucial that we not get so effusively sentimental about Obama’s victory that we forget to be critical of his performance. The overwhelming issues facing this nation are only temporarily absolved by this euphoric moment. Poverty and economic hardships, violence, racism, homophobia, anti-intellectualism, and a host of other issues continue to be staples in the American structure. Before victory can truly be claimed, these things must come to an end. What President Obama does to address these things will be the ultimate measure of this moments’ significance. In his defense, we tend to place blame on Presidents without also recognizing the role Congress plays. But with the supporting cast he has, President Obama has a lot working for him. But if he cannot produce positive results during his tenure, we may only be celebrating the historic election of a captain on a sinking ship.
Of course, we cannot lay this all at the feet of Obama alone. Challenging him to be an effective leader must be met with our own self-imposed challenge to be better citizens. As citizens, we have an obligation to be equally as critical of Obama’s performance as we were of President Bush’s. We must not be so enamored by the ceremoniousness of all things Obama that we forget he’s supposed to be our President. After all, we are fresh off the heels of a miserable decade in our political history that could have been avoided had we used sensible criticism of our President instead of mawkish adoration. This all demands that we not stay politically blinded until we vote again. This calls for something much greater than that.
This leads me to my final point: we should not find ourselves in the position of resting on our laurels now that Obama is officially president. Instead of wasting this opportunity by accepting a docile and unassuming role in the change we are seeking, we should make a conscious decision to be involved. The time for excuses is over. The time for action is now. To be sure, a history-making inauguration of the first president of color makes the challenges we face no less difficult to surmount. But it should at the very least trigger a belief that we can face and defeat the obstacles we face daily. We can all be a little more motivated to healing this world.
To improve our communities.
To mentor our young.
To reach out to the poorest and more marginalized among us.
To exhibit the same pride and connection that allowed us to endure throughout the generations.
Our history has not culminated at this moment. If anything, this is only the next step in the process.