- Barack Obama, 1/20/09
I was stunned to hear the President of the United States say something like this today. Really, I almost couldn't believe my ears. I guess I am more used to hearing Presidents use phrases like "Evil Empire" and "Axis of Evil" and "you're either with us or against us." Today, I was not alone in seeing the world as one world - and in the midst of all the world's troubles, I am overwhelmed with hope. I want it to last. I'm prepared to put my own efforts into making it last.
I've never experienced a day like this before. My mother on the phone this evening told me I was getting a taste of what it was like in a time before me, when Americans knew the inspiration of leaders like John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. I heard a new amazement in her voice, that her children were actually experiencing the kind of power those leaders once inspired. I think she thought she'd never see that happen for her kids (my sister and brother-in-law were somewhere out there on the Mall - I can't wait to hear their stories). I sure wouldn't have believed it myself, even four years ago. Our nation has been through a terrible, dark time. It's still in one. But today I fervently believe what I have often questioned in recent times - and I know the American spirit will prevail.
I took the morning off from work today to attend a community viewing of the Inauguration at the Mexican Heritage Center. The event was the brilliant brainchild of an African-American gentleman (I'm trying to Google his name now but I can't find it quickly) who related an anecdote about telling one of his fellow African-Americans about the Mexican Heritage Center, a wonderful community center in San Jose, and asking if she'd been there. She had replied, "Well - no, I didn't think that was for us." I was tempted to raise my hand and share with the auditorium my own anecdote, about how I once performed in the building in a Chinese play. And, of course, there were people of all races and cultural backgrounds in the auditorium today. Clearly, the Mexican Heritage Center is for everyone!
The hundreds of us present cheered at the sight of the sheer enormity of the walls and walls of people in D.C. when the giant TV screen was turned on. I couldn't helped but be moved by the massive example of a peaceful assembly. I could feel kindness and regard emanating from all those people. If that's a corny thing to say, I don't care. I know that's what I felt.
When Obama arrived on the scene, we engaged in a standing ovation for a man who was on the other side of the country and certainly couldn't see what we were doing. We cheered, we applauded, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who teared up. We stood for Biden's oath and we stood for Obama's oath. So much standing and sitting and standing again I began to feel like I was at Mass!
We watched the ceremonies up until the poem by Elizabeth Alexander. The TV was turned off and our organizer returned to the stage and said "Wow." I think he spoke for everyone in the building. He soon thereafter introduced Joyce Randolph, whom he called "our own Aretha Franklin" who led the crowd in "America the Beautiful." She was indeed fabulous like Aretha, living proof of the rich talent that exists in so many corners of the country. We held hands and strangers hugged strangers when the song was done.
Then we broke up in small groups that met in various rooms in the building - some groups met in the classroom; mine met in the theater lobby. Our group facilitator led us in discussion of two questions (here I paraphrase): "What did Obama's inaugural speech mean to you, and what do you think it means for America?" and "What are the possibilities you see in serving the community?" Our small group was reflective of the large group in terms of its diversity in age, race, and gender. We discussed a great spectrum of issues, and came up with an action item for everyone: "Get to Know Your Neighbors." We reconvened into the big group and representatives from each of the twelve of so small groups spent a few minutes sharing thoughts.
I have felt deep cynicism and sorrow in my life, on global, national, and personal levels. But I have never for one second, ever lost the belief I have in the incredible potential for goodness and strength that exists in human beings, and today I saw that potential brim to the surface, in the people around me, in the million or so on the National Mall, in the new leader of the Free World. Whatever happens from here on out, I will always know what I witnessed today.
Around noon Pacific Time, when this ingenious event in San Jose came to a close, Joyce Randolph took the stage again. She led us in another song. This time, it was "We Shall Overcome." Halfway through, the man next to me turned to me and warned me he was going to yell out: "Everybody hold hands." Everybody did. And, finally, Joyce brought to us one final verse:
We have overcome,
We have overcome,
We have overcome, today.
Oh, deep in my heart,
I do believe
We have overcome, today.