The sun rose slowly over the Washington Monument on January 20, 2009. Flocks of seagulls swarmed the air, reflecting the excitement from the ground. The air was bitterly cold, fresh and clean. Journalists, tourists, officials and ROTC volunteers poured into the National Mall in steady streams.
By some awesome trick of the universe, I was there. I was there in long johns, jeans, leg warmers, three sweaters, a ski jacket, scarf, beanie and gloves. Michelle and I packed the Washington Post, a bag of carrots, apples and crackers, and two fleece blankets. We were far from the Lincoln Memorial--very far, but much closer to meaningful change than I have ever been.
What did it feel like? I've never been the type to quote "America the Beautiful" or remember the Pledge of Allegiance verbatim--any sense of American identity I have is the result of open debate, often defiance for the system we have yet to reform. It is hard to let one's guard down after several years of tuning out the status quo. Mine is a generation used to being let down by the global gag rule, by decreasing funds for public education and hard-fought battles against racial profiling and homophobia. But last Tuesday--the Presidential Inauguration at the Capitol steps--the crowd was pulsing with growing optimism.
"Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America — they will be met."
We sat in the cold for five hours. The longer we sat, the more surrounded we became. Surrounded by little old black women from Tennessee and Alabama, waving Obama flags, by twenty-year-old college reporters with manual cameras, by five-year-olds decked out in snowsuits. Every time I stood up, the sea of people grew to meet me. The energy of the crowd was raw, unadulterated. And somehow, I was there.
It took well over an hour to leave the Mall. We huddled like penguins, wandering en masse toward any available exit. Both my shoes had loose laces, but the combination of the crowd and the freezing cold kept me from leaning down to fix the problem. Each step forward resulted in two tugs in opposite directions, and yet it was symbolic of that thread that tied us all there, filing past national monuments and weaving through political officials like the latest group of tired and hungry masses.
The promise of renewal is strong.
One week later, it is hard to believe how much of the universe shifted that day. I've read and watched a lot of interviews in which citizens express their fears that Obama has been idolized to an unhealthy extent, and that his is an unlikely journey. Perhaps, and yet anyone standing in National Mall on Inauguration day will tell you that the sheer power of belief--of honest, critical expression--is enough to mobilize the most diverse groups.
On January 20, 2009, I felt vindicated. I know I wasn't the only one.