Tuesday, January 20, 2009

the 44th president takes office

In an hour and a half, we'll all be watching our new president take his oath of office and give his inaugural address. There is a feeling of being on the lip of something—like watching the lunar landing in the late '60's. I was a few years younger than my son, Carson, when we took "one giant step for mankind," but I absorbed the multitude of adult expectation and enthusiasm that filled the air around me, and it is with me still.

Kennedy's assassination and September 11th were other occasions where the collective consciousness of a people permeated my sensibilities as an isolated figure. Well, maybe not Kennedy's killing, as I was an infant living in a foreign country—but certainly my frame of reference was influenced by that day.

What's different about this event today—than any event I can remember—is that unity has crossed the color barrier. As a six-year-old I joined my mother and younger sister, celebrating the life of a black man who had changed the lives of the people with whom we marched. The people in that marching mass were "colored," according to my father. He did not take part. Having just moved to this country from a very white, albeit internationally so, part of Europe, it was curious to me how people found their way in the pecking order of things. As a foreigner, complete with a Mary Poppins accent, I was keenly tuned to social stratification. Who was "better" than whom? Clearly, the demonstrators were "worse" than the onlookers.

"We shall overcome," we sang along with the colored people. Overcome what? I thought. My accent? My short hair? My smallness? (Having started school a year earlier than my American counterparts, my mother had enrolled me in the second grade, making my scrawniness all the more so.) The blackness of the marchers' skin unsettled me. They, like me, were "different," but I knew that I could lose my accent and grow my hair and get taller. All the things that made me "different" could and would change. I would overcome.

Today, millions of schoolchildren will be watching the Black Obamas as they move into the White House. I doubt that kids are going to feel a sense that the Obamas "overcame." If they feel anything, it'll be good old fashioned envy—like I had for the guy with the giant boots as he placed the American flag in a moon crater. "How cool," I thought—now that my rapid assimilation had allowed me that piece of slang. "How cool would it be to be that guy."

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