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What He Really Said

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Washington, D.C., the day before the inauguration, I was with maybe two hundred people at a wreath-laying ceremony at the African-American Civil War Memorial on U Street, a bronze monument in a little square not far from a corner once known for prostitution. In November, Governor Deval Patrick had reactivated Colonel Shaw’s formerly all-black 54th Massachusetts Regiment that in 1863 led the unsuccessful assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, which nevertheless proved to doubters of the time that black soldiers would and could fight. This afternoon in Washington, an honor guard from the reconstituted regiment, men and women, black and white, shared duty with a company of reenactors, young men, black and Asian, dressed in Civil War uniforms and carrying the regimental colors.

A black woman in Civil War–era costume stepped forward and began to sing. People in front took up the song and soon the crowd was singing something I’d not remembered ever hearing. It felt like one of those soft hymns of deliverance sung around the time of the Emancipation Proclamation. I had to bury my face in my hat.

Thank you, Lord.
Thank you, Lord.
I just want to thank you, Lord.

The first time blacks swarmed to the nation’s capital, they were “contraband,” the formerly enslaved trailing the Union army. Free blacks lived in the woods surrounding the Capitol being built in Mathew Brady’s photographs. Elizabeth Keckley, modiste to Mary Todd Lincoln, reported in Behind the Scenes; or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years at the White House (1868) that blacks were barred from a White House reception in 1863, but Lincoln had Frederick Douglass brought in to be presented to him, if not to the ladies. “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” Douglass asked in one of his most famous speeches. “Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth. They are a trouble to me; I am weary to bear them.” Douglass set down the causes of black alienation from patriotic joy. However, this January our historic distance from “the national altar” was about to be closed. After all those marches, President Obama’s inauguration was the first time black people had come to Washington in great numbers, but not to protest.

A new beginning, a turning of the page, a coming together, the realization of a dream—every black person of a certain age whom I spoke to, whether auto workers from Detroit, Michigan, or former SNCC members up from retirement in Florida, saw the day almost upon us as a long time in coming, an achievement many had sacrificed for, a day that belonged to the many thousands gone that the spiritual tells of. “Some of us are preparing for tomorrow as though there was no yesterday,” Donna Brazille told a packed auditorium at Howard University, a black college, the evening before the inauguration. A panel that included Jesse Jackson Jr., Al Sharpton, and Cornel West emphasized President-elect Obama’s indebtedness to the civil rights movement, the link between his campaign and the voting rights crusade, illustrating Manning Marable’s contention that this alternate understanding of American history, more than race and culture, is what makes black people different from other people in the US. And yet I got a sense from the students around me that although they were saying thank you to the older style of black politics, it was for them very much a new day.

Just before sunrise on January 20, hundreds of people were already streaming down Connecticut Avenue toward the Mall, eerily quiet, perhaps because it was so cold. Daylight increased the throng and turned up the volume. No one was a stranger. I’d anticipated an overwhelmingly black party, from which whites would keep away, but the mass was entirely integrated. For everyone, the past had become prologue; the national narrative was at long last about to come to a point around which we could all converge. Elizabeth Keckley in 1868:

Close to the house the faces were plainly discernible, but they faded into mere ghostly outlines on the outskirts of the assembly; and what added to the weird, spectral beauty of the scene, was the confused hum of voices that rose above the sea of forms, sounding like the subdued, sullen roar of an ocean storm, or the wind soughing through the dark lonely forest. It was a grand and imposing scene, and when the President, with pale face and his soul flashing through his eyes, advanced to speak, he looked more like a demi-god than a man crowned with the fleeting days of mortality.

I had Elizabeth Keckley in mind only because President-elect Obama had sent me scrambling back to Lincoln. I expected a highly literary and history-conscious inaugural address, especially after the reference to “the better angels of our nature” in the remarks he had made in Baltimore a few days earlier.

Multitudes were lifted up in their hearts when President Obama took the oath of office. We waited to be finished off by old-style American oratory— underestimating how truly aware of history President Obama is. He inaugurated his administration with a complete surprise: he declined the performance. His somber voice didn’t seem to follow Aretha Franklin’s letting loose, and his tone turned Reverend Joseph Lowery’s down-home benediction that opened with lyrics from the Negro National Anthem into a consolation. But now, some days later, I can appreciate that just as he halted the campaign back in March to make a speech about race, so he stepped around the theatricality of his inaugural moment—he would not waste our attention—to warn us of the rough road ahead and to call us as a nation back to first principles.

Severe, spare, stark, combative, compressed—President Obama’s speech was eloquent enough, starting with the fact that he used the word “I” only three times throughout the course of his reflections on “the work of remaking America.” I’ve since read complaints that he was too abstract in his outline of what he planned to do about the economy; but to identify, as he did, our failures and weaknesses, “the indicators of crisis,” and suggest remedies having to do with repairing the national infrastructure and developing new sources of energy struck me as encouragingly concrete in approach. “We will restore science to its rightful place.” But he disappointed some of those who had specific policy goals in mind on a variety of issues and who didn’t realize that he engaged something else. Looking back, I see that what surprised many of us about President Obama’s inaugural address was not the absence of rhetorical finery, but how basic and insistent was his reiteration of the premises on which he said we as a nation had always told ourselves we stood. It was a genuine civics lesson, a primer in what makes us ourselves, and it deserved a closer reading than some gave it.

President Obama’s chastisement of the nation for the drift and low spirits of recent years exempted no one, including himself—everywhere he cautioned of the labor ahead—but what came across immediately in his speech was how much of a repudiation of the outgoing administration he stood for. “This is the price and the promise of citizenship.” No slogans, no self-congratulation, but a definite end to the atmosphere of corruption. He is pledged to transparency in governmental practice in order to “restore the vital trust between a people and their government.” He committed himself to change in policy on Iraq, Afghanistan, nuclear proliferation, health care, education, global warming, torture, and secret prisons.

People quickly quoted as one of their favorite sentences or sentiments: “As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” President Obama spoke as the first African-American commander in chief, which for many McCain supporters had sounded like a contradiction in terms. But he was mindful of the graves over in Arlington, of the men and women still on active duty in foreign parts, and of anxieties about our security. “For those who seek to advance their aims by including terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.”

In the days since the inauguration, I’ve seen commentary that applauds President Obama’s speech as post-racial, his escape from Lincoln and all that into the more universal symbolism of the hard winter at Valley Forge—as if blacks hadn’t fought in the Revolutionary War for the same reasons they fought in the Civil War. But in the American story he told in his inaugural address, President Obama alluded to the experiences of both his father’s and his mother’s families, as he did in his Philadelphia speech: pioneer loneliness remembered alongside the isolation of racial discrimination. Moreover, President Obama invoked instances of heroism during Hurricane Katrina as well as September 11, bringing together the two catastrophes in the US in the early twenty-first century that sometimes have been used to divide the races politically. But he wasn’t addressing the unprecedented crowds as Senator Obama, the deft reconciler. He was the president, and he was laying down a great charge having to do with the way he saw things politically, ethically, morally.

The connection between civil rights at home and human rights abroad has always been a part of the thinking of people in the freedom movement, and the old believers I heard speak around town were no doubt right to see Obama’s presidency as a culmination of their efforts, and a vindication of their faith that the rule of international law has a place in the conduct of US affairs. It was in part because of the international repercussions of the freedom movement that successive US administrations after World War II tried to accommodate its moderate elements. Indigenous people may not have got a mention in this speech, or the treatment of gays and lesbians, but when President Obama said that “we are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus—and nonbelievers,” I thought of what the example of his mother may mean to him, and how she made him a son of her freedom movement. “What is demanded, then, is a return to these truths.”

In Harlem, we say that he is president of the world, and the photographs of people watching the swearing-in ceremony from Kabul to Nairobi make me wonder if President Obama was at times so plainspoken in his speech in an effort to reach people in other countries who speak English, talking in a language the world could understand. It was only after things were over that I remembered how much of the world had been watching. He offered up the American experience as hope to the Middle East, that because we had survived “the bitter swill of civil war and segregation,” where we were now was proof that it was possible even to think that “the old hatreds shall someday pass.” “Our common humanity shall reveal itself”—it was dramatic of him to address Muslims directly, to make the overture, right there. The dignity of the nation was gathered up into his assertion that “our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.”

The pride with which people came away from the Mall was owing in great measure to their profound respect for President Obama. As much as he tried to merge into his message, or to lower expectations of what he’ll be able to accomplish, I was moved by the thought that we hadn’t seen his like before. “A black man in charge,” my taxi driver marveled. When I watched President Obama sign the executive orders establishing a way to proceed to close Guantánamo, I wondered if black and white people would see the same thing, after all, in those white guys standing around their, our, black president. It makes a difference to all of us; it will change America, even Black America, and maybe also the expectations of leadership in a new generation in Africa. Glory.

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