Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Inaugural Inspiration and Emotion
I watched the inauguration at the Unity College Student Center. The room was absolutely packed. Students, staff, and faculty were riveted to the screen. When Chief Justice Roberts asked everyone to rise, we all rose too. We all sang the Star Spangled Banner. We wanted to share this extraordinary moment.
I was in Washington on Monday (the day before the inauguration) to attend an event featuring the Maine Senatorial and House Delegation. I went down just for the day. I rode the train from BWI to Union Station. It was utterly stuffed as the aisles were filled with standing passengers. Of course, it was a train to the Inauguration. I flashed back to 1968 when I took a bus to Washington for an anti-war demonstration. Forty years later I was witnessing a similar gathering. Yet it was much different this time. There was much less anger and much more love. There was less frivolity and more determination. There was much more diversity. It was as if forty years of activism had come of age. I felt an incredible sense of admiration for all the people on that train.
Watching the inauguration on television wasn't the same as being there, but watching it with the Unity Community was intensely intimate and we were all building community and solidarity, too. Obama's message is so clear—we all have a role to play in America's transformation. Everyone has something important to do.
Like millions of others, I was profoundly moved emotionally. I'd like to describe what it was that brought me to tears. I think that finding the core of an emotional moment is an opportunity for insight and wisdom. Aretha Franklin just about undid me. As she came to the stage, wrapped in her scarf and hat, I noticed a vague and palpable resemblance to my grandmother. Bessie Thomashow was a Russian/Jewish immigrant who believed passionately in worker's rights and bequeathed a progressive legacy to her grandchildren. I grew up in a home that believed deeply in civil rights, peace, and social justice. My parents met in 1948 working for Henry Wallace, the progressive third party candidate for president. My mother passed away a year and a half ago and my father died on election day this year. Neither had any awareness of Obama and they would have been so thrilled to witness these events. Aretha's face connected me to my roots, as different as they might be from hers.
And then she began to sing. She sang with extraordinary passion and power, unbridled but in control, as if her entire history as a musician prepared her for this moment. She sang for my family and for yours. She sang for the past and the future. Her voice reflected struggle and hope, suffering and elation. She filled us with faith and courage.
I am so grateful that I am living at a time in American history when Barack Obama is president. I am so grateful that we all have an opportunity to share in this collective vision and contribute with our voices to this exceptional opportunity. As an educator, my role is to help empower a new generation of leaders who can find their voices in this time of great hope. After all of these years, there is a context for the work we do, and we are nourished by the feeling that there is a meaning and purpose for our work. In my view, the election of Barack Obama is a gift, and we are living in a singular, defining moment of American history. It's our task to respond to that gift by honoring the challenge of learning and service, to make the most of our opportunity, to build enduring and resilient communities, and to empower clear and effective voices.