“Of Thee, I Sing,” The Root, 21 January 2009
Black president, y’all.
In 1939, an American contralto singer named Marian Anderson stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered a rousing hymn to her country—even though she was barred, as a black woman, from performing at the nearby Constitution Hall. On Inauguration Day 2009, Aretha Franklin called the same song—”My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”—back from another century and the other end of the National Mall. It was one of many stirring symmetries that streamed through the historic swearing-in of Barack Obama as the United States’ 44th president.
The Obama that America has come to know is nothing if not a disciple of history. And so inaugural chair and California senator Dianne Feinstein likewise sought to trap the ghosts and echoes that haunt the National Mall: “The dreams that once echoed from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial have finally reached the walls of the White House,” she said. And in turn, each participant, from Rick Warren to Joseph Lowery, gently reverenced the once unthinkable idea of a black president.
The substance of Tuesday’s speech—the historic first chapter of Obama’s four-year conversation with America—was progressive, yet traditional; aggressive and conciliatory. This dualism is a trait we’ve come to expect from Obama, whose wide rhetorical net affords both admonition for the “putting off unpleasant decisions” and applause for “the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job….” The pragmatism suggested in his sole evocation of scripture—”let us now put aside childish things”—is welcome in Washington at a time of national and planetary peril.
Obama shied away from catch phrases and blind optimism—which he defined in his 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention as “the almost willful ignorance that thinks unemployment will go away if we just don’t think about it, or the health care crisis will solve itself if we just ignore it.” He made a point of discussing policy, the role of government and the role of markets, and skewered George W. Bush where he sat, with the understated truism that “we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.”
But at the same time, President Obama made a magnanimous gesture to his opponents. As nasty as the last days of Election 2008 became, both campaigns stressed putting “country first” through community service. So Obama’s inaugural call to national service as “the price and the promise of citizenship” held particular political relevance.
And though the nation, with Obama’s election, chose “our better history”—throughout today’s celebration, discussion of Obama’s landmark achievement was rarely overt. Rather, the import of Martin Luther King Jr.’s hoped-for racial breakthrough was addressed in local, everyday language. And it was made encompassing at every turn. Yes, this was a moment for countless fathers, like Obama’s own, who once could not sit down to eat. But it was also a moment for “the figuring out at kitchen tables,” as poet Elizabeth Alexander put it, or rather—as in Obama’s lovely refrain—”for us.” He brilliantly canonized the simple toil of slaves and of marginalized immigrant Americans as a type of national service, a devotion to the project of this democracy. The oldest values of our republic thus met “the new era of responsibility” that will be the long-remembered thesis of the day.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, mingling with black leaders and dignitaries at the foot of the Capitol, was ebullient at the end of the speech. “My heart bled,” he told me, also acknowledging the pile of worries on the new president’s desk: “We had the big engagement party in Chicago, and tonight we had the big wedding—now the marriage begins,” he said. “The good news is that when it’s darkest, light can be seen more clearly. He has an awfully bright light.”