Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote a blog called “The Necessity of Obama.” When I wrote it, I said it was necessary for Obama to be the candidate, if for nothing else than to dramatize the issue of race and its persistence in the United States. I frankly had little hope that he would actually be elected.
Now, today, he is the 44th President of the United States. And though there are many areas where I fear he may be pushed to conservative positions by those around him, and by events, not even those considerations could dampen the thrill of seeing this man sworn in as President. I have seen many inaugurations. I have never seen anything even remotely like this. The enthusiasm and joy of the nearly 2 million people lining the streets and on the Mall was absolutely infectious, even via the cold medium of television. What a change! What a wonder! To have millions of people hysterically cheering for a new president, actually, demonstrably hopeful that he might bring a new spirit to the nation, that he might, simply by virtue of his skin color, his intelligence, his class, heal some of the oldest, and newest, wounds in our history. To see the streets of Washington DC lined with the adoring, joyous faces of black people who never believed this day would come. It brought tears to the eyes of this old cynic.
I must also say that as I watched the presidential limousine crawling slowly along the streets, and then saw Obama and Michelle emerge and begin to walk along the route, I felt a terrible clutch of fear—the reflex of so much vicious history, the reflex of one who in the tumultuous years between 1963 and 1968 witnessed not one, not two, but three assassinations of major political figures: John Kennedy felled by an assassin’s bullet; Martin Luther King, Jr. felled by another; Malcolm X felled by another. Now there was Barack Obama striding along, grinning his infectious grin, hand in hand with his regal wife Michelle, and the fear was palpable: don’t do it, don’t walk in the open, don’t let yourself be the next victim of another bullet. But Obama and Michelle did it once, got back in the car, and did it again. And both times, I felt the same ominous fear in the belly, in the heart.
But this, at least for the moment, in this year 2009, was different. At least for the moment, this cup of joy was allowed to continue. So perhaps, against all the odds, the United States of America can be redeemed. Can at last live up to its creed. Can eventually recover from the brutalizing of the last eight years. That is what is so moving, in the end: perhaps our long national nightmare is over. Perhaps those trite and hackneyed words, repeated so often by commentators, can just this once, truly come to pass: a new era has begun.