Last year this time I was truly having an adventure in the freezing weather of DC with three of my girlfriends from undergrad. After President Obama won the first time we were all adamant about going to the inauguration but we didn’t know the process of requesting tickets from your congressperson until late in the game. So when I was planning what to do with my winter term (or January term if you go to another school) I scheduled it around being back in time to go to the inauguration. So I cut my Spanish immersion trip in Mexico short and flew back to Ohio. Literally, as soon as I got back to town, I exchanged out some of my clothes for clean ones, picked up the girls and packed down my little VW beetle, and hit the road to DC. It was snowy and icy, and COLD. And to make matters worse, my windshield wiper fluid was frozen so I spent those 6 hours driving hunched over sideways so that I could see through the one clear strip of windshield.
Regardless, we made it to DC safely. We had plans to stay with another friend who had graduated from Oberlin the previous year, but first we were invited to dinner with some of my relatives who lived in the area. We had an awesome dinner sitting around the table listening to hilarious stories from some old black women who saw the worst of America’s racism. It was an incredible intergenerational experience to juxtapose their experiences with this historical moment of electing the nation’s first African American president. Most of us twenty-somethings didn’t expect to see it happen, so I can imagine how incredible it was for these 80+ women growing up in the South.
After an amazing dinner, craziness ensued. It was after 11 pm once we were finally able to get away from the dinner table, when our friend, who lived all of 10 minutes away, called and said her mother said it was too late and we couldn’t come until the next morning. All four of us were looking like–are you serious?! What kind of mother decides that four women traveling by themselves just have to figure out somewhere else to stay at the last minute in a city where there is NO where to stay. One of the girls said “I guess we’re sleeping in the car.” But four people sleeping in a VW Beetle? I think not. We probably could’ve stayed at my relative’s house but it was such a full house–and anyway, we’d find out the next day that it was good we didn’t stay for other reasons. So finally, another one of the girls got in touch with a cousin who let us crash on his hotel room couch. But first we had to get there. We were in Maryland and we had to figure out how to get into the city but my GPS was being stupid and it was so late. We parked at a gas station to get directions and try and figure out why the GPS couldn’t recognize Washington DC. In that time one car almost backed into us at full speed. It was almost comical in that four educated black women were sitting in this car hunched over a GPS to look up and see tail lights flying our way and instead of making a logical movement to either A) get out of the car, B) start the car and move it, or C) honk the horn–we all just got wide-eyed and started screaming while cartoonishly grabbing at the air and the doors to “escape” while going nowhere.
We finally got to the hotel and the four of us shared this pull-out couch, which was disastrous. There’s always one person incapable of sharing space while asleep. It was like: “Four in the bed and the little one said, ‘roll over, roll over,’ and they all rolled over and one fell out. Three in the bed…” And this continued until there was just one left. The next morning we finally got to our friends place to stay. We treaded very careful around her mother who didn’t seem to think anything about having left us stranded last night–as if it were a normal thing to do. We spent the day back in town doing touristy things and then made sure to go back early, lest we get locked out again.
Anyway, I recall all of this to put some context to the craziness that was attending the 2009 Inauguration. The day of the inauguration we woke up at like 3 AM and went to the metro station. It was packed! After we finally got on a train, we had to get off and on two more trains because people kept breaking the doors trying to pry them open–mostly New Yorkers who are used to doing this on NYC subways where the doors are a little more resilient and don’t break as easily.
We finally got to the stop but when we got out we didn’t know where to go–neither did the other thousands of people without tickets. We had to walk for forever to get to the correct part of town to the mall entrance. Roads and tunnels were shut down and there were masses of military everywhere. So we walked where everyone else was walking, only I sped walked. I don’t know how far it was, if it was more than a mile or two, or if it just felt long because it was freezing and early in the morning, but I wanted to get there as fast as possible to get as close to the front as possible. It looked like a mass exodus of people walking the streets and through the tunnel. At one point, in her quasi-delirium, we had to go grab one of our friends who was reaching towards one of the army guy’s machine gun. She said she just wanted to touch it, but the rest of us thought she was crazy, imagining tomorrow’s headlines: Crazed black girl reaching for private’s weapon put down–Presidential assassination attempt averted.
We reached the mall while it was still dark, it was maybe only 5 AM. And then the long wait for the actual program began. It was unbelievably cold. I did not have enough clothes on, none of us did. They set up some stands to sell hot chocolate that was luke warm at best and disgusting. There was much solidarity between everyone standing in the mall, probably because of the cold, and the dedication to witnessing history (even through a jumbo screen with the capitol as the backdrop). They replayed the inaugural concert from the night before on the screens while we waited and everyone was dancing just to keep moving and keep warm.
Once the ceremony began, the pride felt among everyone there was palpable. It was an amazing experience, even if we couldn’t actually see the President from that far back, and even though we were all slightly hypothermic. At the end of the day it was worth all of the craziness and foolishness that was endured to get to that exact moment where President Obama took the oath of office. Maybe looking back at his record for the past four years makes people question how momentous his election was, with the accusations that he didn’t deliver anything he promised, that he’s just perpetuated the same institutions that contribute to social inequities and injustices–even more so than his predecessors. I’m not sure yet how I feel about that. I mean the rose colored glasses of him changing the game may be gone. But at the end of the day, he’s one man amongst a legislation that largely looks the same as before he was elected, but exponentially more agitated as they have to face their own issues with race every single day. And this has largely been a recipe for disaster as people’s true colors have come out, along with their vehement denials of being racist. Nevertheless, I think we’re all to close to his terms to know what the implications will be for the future. So I’ll reserve my opinions on that for later.
All I know is that whenever I see photos of the first family, my heart swells, I feel pride that I never felt when George W. Bush was in office. He may or may not be the President to radically change the social dynamics of this country among all of its citizens, but I know as a young Black woman, seeing the first family–of a husband and wife madly in love with each other, of two highly educated African Americans, of a two parent household, of two beautiful young girls who appear confident in themselves–is refreshing in a society that over-emphasizes how Black Americans represent the disintegration of strong families, devalues black women while hypersexualizing them, and that is cynical about our academic capabilities, crediting affirmative action for any achievements.
He and Michelle Obama still give me hope. And I’m still excited for four more years. So I will be tuned into the inaugural coverage all morning in my cold little apartment while I distract myself for a few hours from all the little things that have been stressful. Hope you will too.