Hail to the Chief!

I was glued to my computer screen all morning on January 20, waiting to see the inauguration of our 44th President safely and finally completed.

The very existence of the possibility of Barack Obama’s election, I discovered, had been more important to me than I had realized. Back on election night, I had been invited to several parties to watch the returns, but was too nerved up to do anything more than go home, and go to bed early.

I finally let out my metaphoric breath when the band struck up “Hail to the Chief” for Obama at his inauguration. Why? I asked myself. I’m not a highly political animal, and I grew up in a New England town where no blacks were visible, certainly no children of any color in my schools from K-12.

My parents, however, both were raised in the Deep South, and I spent many vacations with grandparents and cousins in Jackson, Mississippi. It was inevitable that I heard and saw things I didn’t understand, or that were repugnant to a kid who hadn’t had been “carefully taught” racism at home. Why two drinking fountains—the shabby one labeled “Colored”—at the airport? Why couldn’t I sit in my favorite spot at the very back of the bus?

I was (within three months) the same age as Emmett Till, the black Chicago youngster who, at 14, brutally was murdered by white thugs near Money, Mississippi, in 1955. I was about the same age as Civil Rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, who also were murdered in Mississippi in 1964. My grandparents’ house was just a couple of miles from activist Medgar Evers’s home in Jackson where he was gunned down in 1963.

I was mesmerized by Norman Rockwell’s 1964 painting in Look (“The Problem We All Live With”) of a little black girl, about the age of Obama’s daughters, being escorted to school by troops. The wall behind her white dress bears an ugly epithet and the red splatter of a hurled tomato.

So many incidents; so much ugliness; so much wasted humanity. I felt these as a human, and I felt them as someone who knew that he, too, was unacceptably (if less visibly) different.

In my Connecticut home, there were no racially charged words, yet there was a kind of inherent dismissal and devaluation of “others,” not just blacks, but women and gays (not a word in the Eisenhower-era vocabulary).

Today, our new President, himself born in the troubled ‘60s, is opening the doors of darkened rooms, inviting all people to come out into the light together. He isn’t a miracle worker—being black, white, a woman, or gay is not in itself a cure. Nevertheless, to me, Obama’s open-mindedness, his willingness to listen, to offer a place at the table to all, is a balm.

Perhaps the anxiety and anticipation I’ve been feeling represent—Hope!

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