I approach January 20, 2009, with mixed emotions and ambivalence. I sense the historic nature of what is about to happen but I also remember what happened forty years ago.
You have to understand that I have two hometowns – the place where I was born and the place that I identify with. I was born in the Washington, D. C. area so that is my home town. But I graduated from high school in the Memphis, TN, area and that is also my home town. As one who grew up in the South during some of the darkest days of this country’s history, I can rejoice in what is to come. But I also know what happened when another man first spoke of and then worked for change and I wonder if we, as a nation, are prepared for the future.
We are still a nation of firsts, the first to do this, the first to do that. We rejoice in Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and say that we have achieved that which he dreamed about forty-five years ago. But we still measure people by who they are and not what they are; sometime in the next twelve to twenty years, we will elect a woman to be President of the United States and we will spend countless moments talking about how this unnamed woman is the first of her gender, not that she is the best qualified person for the position.
The inauguration of Barack Obama is historic and will, perhaps, bring the change that this country so desperately needs. But I hear the voices and read the words of those who have advanced the level of nay-saying to a new level (or would it be better to say lowered it to a new level). It is clear that there are those in this country who do not want Barack Obama to succeed and will seek to undermine his efforts to seek change.
There are those for whom the change cannot come quickly enough. We have become a nation of immediacy, we want things done right now! And I think that many people are going to quickly become disillusioned if the change that they anticipate does not come quickly enough.
I also have to wonder if the change that is expected will be a change for all people or only for just a few. There are many for whom that change that this occasion represents is only a change in the identity of those in power. There will be change but it will not be the change that this country needs.
While it is possible that change can come from the top and filter down to every person in this country, it will not come quickly unless each and every person works for the change. When John Kennedy intoned the words that were the centerpiece of his inaugural address (“ask not what the country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country), they were the inspiration for action. But the action did not come from President Kennedy nor could it come from him. It came from the people who heard the call and believed in the call.
It is certain that Wednesday will follow Tuesday and it is just as certain that there will still be violence abroad and violence at home and there will still be people without food, without shelter, without healthcare. The problems of this world will not go away just because someone is inaugurated as President nor will they go away because there is a rush of legislation in the first 100 days. To quote again from President Kennedy, “All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”
The inauguration of Barack Obama on January 20, 2009, marks not only a transition of power but a chance, a chance to bring the future into play, to make tomorrow the day we look forward to, not to dread. It marks a chance to try new things and seek new solutions. And while it is Barack Obama that will take the oath of office, it will be the opportunity for the people of the United States to say that the time has come to make the future a reality.