Remember where we were Tuesday
It is a question we will be asking each other just like we have heard people asking others where they were on Dec. 7, 1941, when they heard about Pearl Harbor. Or where they were when they heard about and celebrated the end of World War II? Where were they on Nov. 22, 1963, when they heard about the assassination of President Kennedy? Who were they with when they watched the funeral parade on television a few days later? Where were they on Sept. 11, 2001, and with whom did they spend the rest of the day? There are certain times when the force of events, sometimes tragic, sometimes uplifting, drives the country together and forges a common memory.
Presidential inaugurations, important as they are, usually do not grab hold of the entire country. I have been to a few. On Jan. 20, 1965, I marched as part of a group of Special Forces soldiers at the President Johnson’s inaugural parade. (A photo, long ago destroyed, I hope, showed that I was the only one marching in step.) It was a nice occasion, but for the rest of the country it was just another day. A couple of other times I have been in Washington for inaugurals were great fun for me and for others with an active interest in politics and government. But they were not memorable times for most Americans. This Jan. 20 is different. It is one of those shared national coming-together moments, with millions of people pushing their way into Washington even though no more tickets to the main events were available. The day will be remembered as a logistical nightmare. But those who were there will brag about it the rest of their lives. Those who cannot go have lined up ways to be something more that a mere observer. One friend’s book club planned a special meeting to watch the inaugural on television, with everyone bringing the new president’s book, Dreams of My Father.
One college professor cancelled class and assigned his students to do what they would be doing anyway “” watching the ceremonies. Individuals and groups organized all kinds of post-inaugural parties all over the country, including many formal “black tie” events. Sales of Barack Obama coins, medals, prints, and other souvenirs have almost given the economy a jumpstart. Far away from Washington a people have stretched to be a part of this Jan. 20. Why? Race is part of it. Jan. 20, 2009 will always big day for black Americans, marking the time when an African American first became a US president, a time coming much earlier that anyone had dared to hope. A big day for black Americans, but maybe it is even more important for whites. It is whites who have been burdened by their racist past and have been without a way to symbolically set it aside. The inauguration of a black man as president frees them from their unspoken discomfort or shame at living
in times of racism and being unable or unwilling to change. The change has been made for them and they rejoice. Inaddition, we know that this inauguration is a signal to the rest of theworld and proof to ourselves that the best American values and ideals,though put aside or delayed temporarily, will in the long run not bedenied. The tough times of governing are now upon the newpresident. No matter how good and talented he is, it will be a rockyroad. Today’s excitement and good may melt away as political realitiessettle in. But even if they do, the memories of this inaugural will bewith us, in common, forever.
DG Martin is the host of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs Sundays at 5 p.m. Check his blog and view prior programs at www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch.