In Obama's Moment, Many in Crowd Feel Echoes of Their Own Stories
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
In taking the oath of office as the first African American president in the nation's nearly 233 years, one man reached a singular achievement. But at four minutes after noon yesterday, Barack Hussein Obama was inevitably transformed -- no matter what happens during his administration -- from an individual, a politician, to an icon and a symbol. Here was history at its most sweeping and yet intimate.
An essential theme of his presidential campaign was that his candidacy was less about him than it was about the coming together of the people of the United States of America, as Obama ritually called it in his rolling cadence. We are the change we have been waiting for, he would proclaim, repeating the mantra so often that he left himself open to sardonic mocking. Yet that idea, more than anything he said or did, became the dominant sensibility of an extraordinary day.
With the inauguration witnessed by perhaps the largest audience ever to assemble in Washington, and with the fit young leader and his wife striding confidently down part of the Pennsylvania Avenue parade route, the day, of course, was about him.
But more than that, it was about everyone out there in the crowds that stretched from the west side of the Capitol all the way to the Lincoln Memorial: every person with an individual story, a set of meanings and reference points for a moment that many thought would never happen in their lifetimes.
In his inaugural address, Obama concentrated mostly on the difficult trials to come. Drawing more on the metaphors of George Washington than of Abraham Lincoln, he evoked a figurative winter of hardship that the nation must and will endure, harking back to the uncertain revolutionary winter of 1776. The crowds, meanwhile, seemed ready and willing to stand for as many hours as it took in the literal winter, in the whipping cold of a January day, to celebrate the meaning of the moment rather than focus explicitly on the tasks ahead.
Obama's message was somber, serious and forceful, with several graceful rhetorical riffs but no attempt at lyrical exaltation. It was as though he understood that the crowd would have enough hope and joy on its own, without need of more from him. "We must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again," he said at one point, but his celebrators already seemed picked up about as straight and high as they could get.
On a weekend train down from New Jersey, an older black man wearing presidential cuff links, stooped with arthritis but in good voice, kept saying to the people in his car: There are all these stories. Everyone has a story. We all have stories.
And so they did yesterday. The stories were not about Obama and his own unlikely saga as the 47-year-old son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya, no more than his speech was. What preoccupied people, on this day, was the connection of his reality to their own.
Patricia Lother and her childhood friend Naomi McDowell Bryant said they started crying, eyes closed, rocking in prayer, as soon as Obama opened his mouth. They are in their 70s now, one living in New York City, the other in suburban Virginia, but they grew up together in Aiken, S.C., during the era of Jim Crow segregation.
Lother carried underneath her winter bundling a folded piece of paper that held copied photos of her great-grandmother, her grandfather and her mother. From slavery through segregation to this moment on a lone page, which she clutched close, whispering to their memories as if she could tell her ancestors about what to them might have seemed like an unimaginable event.
Lillian Winrow, after taking a cross-country trip to Washington with her husband and two children from Sacramento, was overwhelmed by thoughts of her late father, Obed Rhodes, who grew up in Alabama, in Tuskegee and Mobile, and kept a single artifact of his early life as a reminder to his children of what used to be.
It was another piece of paper, crammed with small, almost illegible writing, inscrutable phrases, that represented the poll tax imposed on voters as a means of discouraging African Americans from participating in American democracy. Winrow, 42, had never dreamed of coming to an inauguration before, had never felt connected to the official history of her country, yet here she stood, looking up at a giant screen showing Obama becoming president in his black suit and red tie, that scrap of paper in her pocket linking past to present in a way that nothing else could.