22 January 2009
African-Americans, Whites, Hispanics, Asians, and other ethnicities stood side by side in the bitter cold, swaying to the sounds of a musical line-up that was just as diverse, ranging from Beyonce, Mary J. Blige and Stevie Wonder, to rocker Bruce Springsteen and country music star Garth Brooks in a star-laden event broadcast live on HBO. The crowd erupted in cheers as jumbo television screens flashed the image of Obama singing along with Brooks’ rendition of Don McLean’s “American Pie”.
For many African-Americans in the crowd, the day was a mixture of joy and pride, tempered by feelings that for all of the remarkable implications in Obama’s sweeping victory in November, the nation has yet to fully turn the corner on the matter of race.
“I think the theme of ‘We Are One’ is important. I just don’t want us to overstate it,” said Mike (who declined to give his last name), 34, a financial service worker who took the Amtrak train down from New York for the concert event. “A lot of people have talked today about the realization of Dr. (Martin Luther) King’s dream as the end of racial inequality, but the reality is there is still great disparity in income for African-American communities and still a huge problem in the prison industrial complex.”
The pre-inaugural event “is definitely a day to celebrate,” Mike added. “Great progress has been made since Dr. King, but I think we still have a ways to go before we reach full equality.”
Across the mall, Willie Chester, a brake contractor from Albany, Georgia, his wife, Peggy, a nurse administrator, and owner of a health care service, stood with their 8-year-old son, Jerrell, basking in the fact that they are participants in an historic event.
“I’m glad to see everybody come together to be as one,” Willie Chester said. “It’s possible, and it’s beginning to come, slowly, but it’s coming.” His wife agreed. “Have we accomplished it all with this election? No, we haven’t. But at least this is the beginning of us coming together,” she said. “Looking around the mall I thought, ‘you know. I see people of all different races, and if they bump into each other they’re smiling. It gives you a feeling of love and unity and it’s come about because of our President Obama. He has given us a new sensation. What young folks saw when they were inspired by Dr. King, you see it again.” There was the scent of change.
“I think that the symbol of all these people being in one place at one time tells a lot, that people really are looking forward to the transformation, some kind of hope,” observed Annette Hawkins, a human resources director from Memphis. Hawkins, who traveled to Washington in a caravan of vans, said the excitement and energy over the coming inauguration was evident all along the trip in spite of the frigid weather. “The fact that everyone is looking for a solution is a positive. But in terms of the theme, I don’t think racism is gone. I think that what we are doing is we’re uncovering the layers of what the root problem is, kind of like peeling an onion.”
A deeper, lasting change is something that won’t be apparent for a decade, she believes. “We’re hoping that Obama’s going to do the right thing, but we really don’t know. It’s a hope. The fact that we’re united together to say, ‘Hey, let’s make something happen positive that’s a step in the right direction.”
For his part, Obama sounded the same theme in his remarks to the crowd.
“Americans of every race and region and station who came here because you believe in what this country can be and because you wanted to help us get there,” he said. “You have proved once more that people who love this country can change it,” Obama told the cheering crowd. “
Little Rock, Ark. native Cedonial Robinson, an administrator with the Veterans Administration, made the trip to Washington in an RV with ten members of her family, and noted that her state, along with most of the Southern states, had not supported Obama’s candidacy. Still, her optimism has not suffered, she said. With the arrival of the Obamas, the shattering of racial stereotypes is just beginning, she said. “The country will be getting a very different look at the African-American family.” •