Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A President For a Mulatto Nation

We decided weeks ago we weren't going to the inaugural. Of course, we'd like to have been there for the historic moment, but getting there and the crowds would have been too much for our 8-year-old, so we wound up watching the swearing-in ceremony on television.

Of course, I was moved, but watching Barack Obama take the oath of office seemed almost anti-climactic compared with the drama of the primary. The suspense was unbearable. I checked the polls on-line several times a day, went again and again to the news sites I'd bookmarked, stayed up late watching Keith Olberman and, yes, sometimes Fox News.

Then, too, I'd canvassed for Obama--not much, but I did--and had a couple of telling moments. At one house, I told an elderly Pakistani couple they should consider voting early to avoid long lines. "Oh no," the woman replied. "We just got our citizenship. This is our first election, and we want to do it in person."

A week or so later, another man (also Pakistani, I think) refused to tell me who he'd vote for till he saw my Obama button. Then his face lit up and he said he'd be voting for "the right person." Something about the way he said it made me think he'd come from a place where it could be dangerous to say you'd vote for the wrong person.

Both were moments where I understood how precious it is to be an American.

I had some of the same feelings watching the "We Are One" concert at the Lincoln Memorial the day before the inauguration. We are a deeply flawed nation with--as the filmmaker Charles Burnett once put it to me--"a difficult history."

And yet, as the then-pending inauguration reminded me, there are times when we get it right. Many of the Founding Fathers were guilty of the grievous sin of slavery, but they also created the institutions that would, in the end, admit black Americans to full participation in the American Experiment.

It wasn't just the speeches recalling the words of Washington or Lincoln or the example of heroes of the Civil Rights Movement like Rosa Parks; it was also Garth Brooks doing the Isley Brothers' "Shout," Jon Bon Jovi channeling Sam Cooke in his duet with Betty Lavette on "A Change is Gonna Come," Shakira's gospel-tinged wails on Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground."

In the beginning, the only Americans were Native Americans, but once Africans and Europeans encountered each other here, each began the process of making the other American.

We are, as Ralph Ellison and others have observed, a mulatto nation. And now we have a president who truly embodies it.

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