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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

An event such as yesterday's is hard to encapsulate fully, for there are so many contexts in which its uniqueness, import and power can be examined. Let me start, then, with the obvious one - the fact that the hand that you see above on Lincoln's Bible is that of an African-American.

Admittedly, I struggled to find a voice to express whatever I was feeling after November 4. It felt like a dream, and as in dreams, articulation and detail aren't always in great supply. I couldn't - or felt that I couldn't - find apt words to encapsulate the moment. But Obama found some in his inaugural address yesterday that led me in the right direction:
Our challenges may be new, the instruments with which we meet them may be new, but those values upon which our success depends, honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism -- these things are old.

These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history.

What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility -- a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

But what of the many Americans - people of color, women, differing sexual orientation and religion - who feel that, despite having paid that price of citizenship in so many ways find themselves at times denied that privilege? This land may be your land, they say, but it is not my land. If I am the most responsible and dutiful American imaginable, how is it that I can still be called "nigger" by my countryman for the slightest slight? When I am made to feel like a foreigner in my own country, how is it that I can taste that which is America?

Perhaps the election of President Barack Obama is, as he put it in his victory speech in Grant Park, the answer to such a question.

The week after the election, my father's co-worker told him that Obama's victory meant that she could finally "unpack her suitcase". She finally felt that America was home, and that we were not merely Africans in America, strangers to the unencumbered promises of freedom and opportunity that are supposedly endemic to the land in which we were born.

The fact remains that Dr. King's dream, contrary to many of the hastily manufactured t-shirts and posters on sale all over D.C. yesterday, remains unfulfilled. The rise of one man to the highest office in our nation is not, in and of itself, absolution for those who continue to make their fellow Americans feel like they're somehow less than American. This corrosive behavior did not die off with the departure of George W. Bush from the White House and ostensibly, from public life.

Elizabeth Alexander's inaugural poem expressed an important sentiment:
Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle; praise song for the day. Praise song for every hand-lettered sign; The figuring it out at kitchen tables.

Some live by "Love thy neighbor as thy self."

Others by first do no harm, or take no more than you need.

What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to preempt grievance.

In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp -- praise song for walking forward in that light.

We may indeed be on the cusp of a new world. We can, and should, take Barack Obama's election as a sign of things beginning and not ending. But the obstacles remain plentiful, and often we can get in our own way.

Whether or not yesterday's inauguration helps you unpack your suitcase, know that everyone in America, by virtue of their birth, should do so as soon as possible - and make themselves at home.


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