What He Really Said

Dominique Nabokov
At the inauguration of Barack Obama, Washington, D.C., January 20, 2009; photograph by Dominique Nabokov

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…

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