Emory Report
January 26, 2009
Volume 61, Number 17

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January 26, 2009

History and hope at inauguration

A mighty cloud of witnesses

Carlton Mackey is assistant director of the Ethics and Servant Leadership Program.

“Why do I have to wear these?” asked the always questioning and sometimes annoying little boy.

“Because they will keep me from having to take you to the doctor’s office,” she sternly replied.

But starting at 6 a.m., with each step I make in my Long Johns (or, as she would call them, “Long Handles”), I bring Pearlie Lee Taylor and all of the memories of growing up with my grandmother with me. And though my mother never lived to see my wife, I’m sure she would tell me to make sure that my wife stayed warm. So as I carry my blanket onto the mall and wrap it around Kari’s shoulders, I bring Burnell Melton Mackey with me.

It is here on this cold January day that I join so many others to witness this moment in history. It is estimated that 2 million people were packed onto the National Mall, but I know now that this is a grossly miscalculated figure because just like me, everyone gathered here brought so many other people with them.

Though I could barely turn around to see her face, when I heard the older African American woman behind me passionately singing a gospel hymn I knew that she didn’t come alone. With her were Fannie Lou Hamer and all the other women whose voices resounded songs of freedom on this mall so many years before.

Through what seemed to be a constant stream of smoke I could see that the young man in front of me from Hawaii who said he had never “seen his breath before” did not come alone. With him were countless other men of Asian descent who in their struggle for equality in America also never thought they would see this day.

With all of us, including the two men who held each other closely and the woman from Arizona who timidly asked if she could rest her head on their shoulders, came so many other people. And for six hours as we stood intimately close to each other, we formed a protective barrier to protect us from both the cold and our outside habits and thoughts, which up to this point kept us all divided.

Then it happened. After rounds of pomp and circumstance and introductions of great people who at the moment we were less concerned to see, our new president emerged. His face was solemn. His head was held high.

In his eyes were both grand confidence and deep humility, because unlike anyone else on that stage, he could see that above that sea of 2 million people was a mighty cloud of witnesses. They had joined us because not distance, not the freezing cold, indeed not even death, could keep us from witnessing this moment.

Actually, he’s the first biracial president

Taharee Jackson is a graduate student in the Division of Educational Studies.

The last thing I could afford to do was attend the presidential inauguration at the National Mall, but I simply couldn’t miss it. I had to go and represent my multiracial family. As a multiracial woman, I am seldom presented with the opportunity to see someone just like me in the public eye.

Tiger Woods has made multiraciality somewhat “cool,” yet people still have trouble identifying him in photos. That being said, to have the entire globe’s gaze finally affixed on a fellow on biracial person — on Barack Obama — compelled me to travel to Washington, D.C. to support him. He wouldn’t know I was there, but my family and I would…and it would mean the world to us.

The elation and pride I felt standing inside the National Mall is indescribable. As I cheered in the freezing cold, clutching and occasionally waving my miniature American flag, I couldn’t help but feel overjoyed. Yes, I was excited about striking up conversations with total strangers who were just as excited about Obama as me. Yes, I was elated about the opportunity to hear Obama’s voice for myself, and to see him with my own, slightly myopic eyes. But no, I was not excited about the possibly of his being introduced as our nation’s first “black” president. Is that how Obama chooses to name himself? How he chooses to enter history?

I braved subzero temperatures, no sleep, millions of people, closed train stations, and hours of no food or bathroom usage, not because I think of Obama as our first black president. True, I am part black, but so is he. He is part black. Barack Obama is half black, and half white — he is biracial. To acknowledge one part of him — his blackness — is certainly not to deny his whiteness, unless we deny him the right to identify himself.

The inauguration was spectacular, awe-inspiring, utopian, and the most wonderful political event I have ever attended. However, despite the elation, joy and excitement I felt, for me it was an incomplete journey.

Most of me was enraptured by the beauty of how far we have come with racial progress, and the pride in our nation for beginning to look beyond race and into a phenomenal leader. But part of me was quietly disappointed and a bit unsettled.

I had come to Washington, D.C. to witness the ushering in of a new racial era — one in which the “one drop” rule no longer reigns. I look forward to the day when Barack Obama will no longer be known as our first “black” president, but our first “effective” president, for example. In the meantime, I would simply settle for his being the first “biracial” president, or whichever term he chooses for himself.