Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Thoughts on the Inauguration

Yesterday, after the President Obama's swearing in, I thought I'd check out a few radio talk shows and listen to reactions to the Inauguration Ceremony. Two host in particular caught my attention - one local and one national. What grabbed me most was their almost verbatim criticisms of the ceremony and their seemingly tandem displays of frustration in failing to connect with the joyful and celebratory reactions people were having to the ceremony. Alternately criticizing and lampooning the ceremony in their shows, both hosts exclaimed, "I just don't get it!" After listening to various reactions and attempting to process my own thoughts and emotions I vacillated hither and yon on what I should address in this blog entry. I decided to attempt to offer some personal perspective in helping others gain some understanding. It's a bit lengthy and rambling, but I beg your indulgence in the hope of building a bridge of understanding. Let me start with a true story...

We had to hurry so we could make it to the drop zone on time! I couldn't figure out what the occasion was. We had seen countless jumps before, and though I enjoyed watching them, I couldn't understand why this one was any different. Yes, it's awesome to see several hundred paratroopers filling the sky at the same time, but they my folks were acting as if we were going to watch a moon launch! We finally arrived at Sicily drop Zone, Fort Bragg's largest. There was a band in front of the observation area - something out of the norm - as well as news cameras, a huge crowd and signs that said "Change of Command Ceremony". Everyone was straining to see the horizon to the left of the reviewing area, where the planes would approach the DZ. Suddenly, what appeared at first glance to be a flock of large birds transformed into a formation of C-130 aircraft and just as suddenly the formation passed over the Drop Zone and the sky filled with hundreds of parachutes as the band began to play the unmistakable strains of military music. The troopers landed and assembled out of the view of the crowd. The music stopped, then changed to a strong, driving drumbeat as the troopers marched in step towards the reviewing area resembling a formation of Roman soldiers in a Hollywood epic. Everything looked somewhat familiar until the formation got close enough for faces to be seen. The crowd cheered, my parents beamed and I stared in awe and disbelief accompanied with overwhelming feeling of pride. Why? At the head of the formation marched the new Division Commander. He was obviously hard core Army Airborne and had that look of confidence and assurance that is typical of seasoned Commanders. He had just become the first Division Commander of the 82nd to to jump into his change of command ceremony. As special as that was, it wasn't the biggest first of the day. General Roscoe Robinson,Jr. a West Point Graduate, was Black and he had just become the first African American Commanding General of the 82nd Airborne Division (He would later become the first African American to attain the rank of four-star general in the United States Army)! If there were any doubts in my mind regarding what Black people could potentially achieve, and there weren't many, the few that remained were obliterated that day with General Robinson's historic assumption of Command. My thoughts soared. If he could accomplish this now, imagine what I could do with even fewer barriers, hard work and determination! It wasn't just greater heights that were within reach, the sky was now the limit! It was a life changing moment for me.

The day after the historic inauguration of the first African American President of the United States of America, some are struggling to understand the level of joy and communal sense of accomplishment many African Americans felt as Barak Hussein Obama placed his hand on the same Bible that Abraham Lincoln had used to for the very same purpose - being sworn into the office of President. Why the overwhelming party atmosphere and why the sense of jubilation and celebration? An important accomplishment, yes, but dancing in the streets? Tears of joy? What drives this mass expression of triumph and victory? It's the culmination of a powerful personal and corporate history that made January 20 the dawn of a New Era for Black people in the US and the reaching of a major milestone towards the fulfilment of the American Dream for all US citizens.

A very close friend called me last night and asked me how I was feeling about the events of the day. He is Black like me and a well educated professional who is at the top of his field. When he witnessed President Obama's swearing in, he reflected on the stories he had heard from his parents and those who went before. These are stories similar to the stories my family knows - accounts of the long and hard history that have paved the way and opened the door for this level of accomplishment. Though he and I both have no need to channel our self worth through the President's accomplishment, we both nonetheless, can clearly see the undeniable culmination of many hopes and dreams in this singular accomplishment and the exciting possibilities President Obama's achievement opens up in the minds of many young African Americans and for the nation's youth in general.

So, what's the big deal? This - President Obama's attainment validates in an unmistakable and undeniable way, that those who made sacrifices before did not do so in vain. It brings the sacrifices of those who went before into sharper focus - be they those who suffered and endured unimaginable horrors at the "lash of the whip" or those like General Robinson, whose "firsts" emboldened the generations that followed to set their sites higher and to stride on a little bit harder. That focus allows the formation of a vision with the potential to mobilize masses in the pursuit of excellence. The highest attainment in the American experience is no longer just a dream for African Americans, it is now an imaginable possibility.

Years ago, whenever I asked a child in our inner city ministry to identify the President of the United States, there was a significant chance that they would not know. It was almost laughable to them to suggest that they dare to dream they could be the president of anything, let alone President of the nation. The trail President Obama has blazed has ignited a fire in the hearts of many that has the potential to bear fruit to benefit the nation and the world for years to come!

Nevertheless, in celebrating achievement and following trails, there are pitfalls to avoid and opportunities to seize. We must avoid hero worship. President Obama is worthy of praise for his accomplishment and the respect he has earned as the POTUS, but he is not worthy of worship. If we merely set him on a pedestal and protect him from the scrutiny and accountability that helps to build towards a better future and greater achievements, we would have done a disservice to those who follow and seek to strive for greatness. We must also avoid cynicism. Just because we may not relate as closely to this historic achievement as others do, if at all, we are not free to cynically berate the true joy felt by those who have had their senses awakened to new possibilities and deeper levels of personal responsibility. Perhaps most importantly, we must seize the opportunity to be gracious, understanding and spur each other on to good work and good will for our collective future.

For me, perhaps the most enduring image of all the inauguration was the farewell between President and Mrs. Bush and President and Mrs. Obama. Their adieu was not just cordial, it was filled with warmth - a warmth not usually displayed at such a change of command and that even touched the news commentators. Though having different political viewpoints, both families possessed a depth of character and an understanding of collective purpose sufficient enough to think outside of themselves and wish each other all the best in a demonstration of broad unity that served as an encouragement for the nation and our allies and a warning for any who wish the nation harm. A true display of the American spirit if there ever was one!

As the novelty of the inauguration wears off and the toil of daily life sets in, let us attempt to use the historic event of January 20, 2009 as a mile marker that allows us to understand one another a little better and enables us to draw a little closer in a land of shared dreams and collective opportunities. Until next time...