The masses flocked to Washington, D.C., to witness a defining moment for our generation, the swearing in of the nation’s first African American president, Barack Obama. They waited in lines, faced the cold and ran on little sleep in a city that seemed to flash continuously with lights, loud noises and waving flags. And yet amidst all the chaos that ensued, there was an overwhelming sense of calm.
As one of the millions who descended upon the city, I saw the smiles of people on the Mall, felt the touch of shoulders squeezing me tight, heard the stories of people who had traveled from afar. I felt like a freshman in college as I answered questions from people I met.
“What’s your name?” “Where are you from?” “When did you get here?”
People asked these questions with what seemed like a genuine sense of curiosity and care. Even the huffing-puffing, eye-rolling people (myself included) who couldn’t push past the crowds shed some smiles when one of the Obama volunteers called out, “Alright everybody, we need to make this line narrower! We don’t cut people in Obama’s country!”
“Right this way, right this way,” another volunteer yelled, motioning her arms like a traffic cop. “We’re all going to be happy, healthy and ‘huggy’ today.”
One man I talked to said he had been to four inaugurations but had never experienced one like Obama’s.
“This one just feels different, ya know?” he said. “The energy — man it’s strong.”
The guy had traveled from Florida and watched the inauguration with friends who he met up with in D.C. He said he hopes Obama will bring together people, Republicans and Democrats alike.
A mother standing by me shortly before the inauguration reached up and grabbed the hand of her son, who was sitting atop his dad’s shoulders. “Say bye-bye Bush, bye-bye Bush,” she told her son, who quietly shouted the refrain.
People partying on U Street the night before the inauguration sang in the streets and jammed to a chorus of “Ohhhh-baaa-ma, Ohhhh-baaa-ma …” Everyone was noticeably friendly and generous that night and on Inauguration Day and the day after. Take my experience on the Marc train. While heading from D.C. to Baltimore the day after the inauguration, I overheard a woman say she waited in line for a ticket ahead of time but didn’t make it to the front of the line before the train arrived.
“Can I just pay the pre-paid price?” she asked the conductor.
“That’s fine, no worries,” the conductor said. “Just pay the $7.”
“Oh thank you!” the woman said, coyly shrugging her shoulders. “You’ve got so much good will.”
“After yesterday, I’ve got enough good will now,” the conductor said, “ to last me a lifetime.”
All of the stories I heard and the acts of kindness I saw echoed messages of “yes we can,” “we are one,” and “hope in the face of difficulty.” People of mixed races embraced one another throughout inauguration week and seemed to share in an enduring commonality rooted not in politics but in the sense that we are all in this together and that yes, maybe change is possible.
Seeing blacks, whites, Latinos, Muslims and Jews gather for a common cause made me feel happy and invigorated. My happiness stemmed from a re-affirmation of the idea that equality and acceptance don’t have to be distant buzzwords that we pretend to think are important; they can be words that we turn into actions and live out in our day-to-day lives. They can be words that help us patch together a quilted landscape of varied colors, one that brings warmth to the cold-hearted and helps mend the world’s dropped stitches and tattered edges.
It’s the patchwork Obama laid out in his inaugural speech, a “patchwork heritage” that he calls “a strength, not a weakness.”
The weaknesses Obama laid out are many. ”Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred,” he acknowledged. “Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare for a new age.”
The economic woes didn’t seem all that evident the morning after the inauguration as people bought newspapers, magazines with Obama on the cover and other memorabilia. They lined up around stores and out the door, holding Obama T-shirts and stacks of The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer.
“How many do you want of these?” one woman asked in the Hudson News stand at Union Station.
“Oh, give me eight New York Times,” the woman with her responded.
“I think I just about snagged the last copy of The Washington Post,” one woman behind me said. Its pages were scattered all over, she said, but she picked them up and put them together again.
People stared at the covers and dirtied their fingers as they flipped through inky pages and read headlines that made boldly simple statements: “President Obama.” “The President,” and “Obama Takes Charge.”
One of my friends heard about my experience seeing so many people waiting in line for newspapers and commented, “Greeeeat. Newspapers are not much more than keepsakes now.” In some ways, he’s right: seeing people get so excited about the newspaper was like a glimpse into the past, to a time when journalism in its daily printed form attracted far more attention and dedicated, daily readers. I thought it was refreshing, though, to see so many people buy the paper and to see them actually reading it, or pretending to anyway.
Whether you embraced Obama’s inauguration and scooped up copies of the paper, or whether you joined your Republican friends and reluctantly watched the ceremony from afar, there’s a sense that it is worth remembering.
The palpable desire to celebrate this historic moment is no doubt a testimony to the novelty of the event and to the hope that the goals set forth in recent days past will become the long-awaited reality of days, months and years to come.
What was your experience like watching the inauguration?