There is an email circulating around the internet has been forwarded to me almost everyday this week called "Inauguration Ball 2009". It is one of those emails that you have to scroll down through five levels of email addresses to read, because no one will take the time to cut and paste the actual message into a new email.
The text of the email is deceptive - it seems simple enough at first, the description of a dream about the ghosts of legendary African Americans mingling about at an inaugural ball held in honor of President Barack Obama - but as you read on, you start to realize that the author has done more than string together a few famous names. The make-believe world he creates captures perfectly the nuances and reactions you would expect to see in such a surreal setting.
It spoke directly to me, because I've been in that room.
We've held two Black History costume parties, gatherings where we asked our guests to dress up like someone of African American descent who has some sort of historical significance. It wasn't as hard as we thought to talk our friends into trying it the first time. It was a small gathering, but it was fun, with people coming as Oprah, Don King, General Benjamin O. "Chappie" Davis, Martin Luther King Jr, Zora Neale Hurston, Bill Pickett, Diana Ross, Condolezza Rice, Cleopatra, Colin Powell, and the Brown Man himself as Frederick Douglas, complete with the crazy hair.
Don King talked trash. Oprah gave away Matchbox cars. Diana Ross batted her eyes at the General. Martin left early because he needed to be in church the next morning. Condolezza and Zora, in an irony of ironies, talked about their kids. Malcolm X didn't have a lot to say, and the half black, half Asian guest who came as Tiger Woods brought his real life white wife.
We ate, drank, and laughed at the details of the costumes we dreamed up. It was hilarious.
In 2008, we did it again, teaming up with some friends to put it on. It seemed that everything was heightened because of the tension in the air surrounding the candidacy of Barack Obama for president. By the time we had the party in late February, Obama had vaulted into the lead for the Democratic nomination. This time around, we had a bigger, broader cross section of guests, who came as Mahalia Jackson, Angela Davis numbers one through six, Bob Marley, Bumpy Johnson, Beyonce, Billie Holiday, Althea Gibson, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, a fully dressed Buffalo Soldier, Louis Farrakhan, Harriet Tubman, Josephine Baker I & II, Claire Huxtable, two overall wearing sharecroppers, Tina Turner, and yours truly as George Washington Carver.
We milled around, just the way Kenyada describes it in "Inauguration Ball", imitating the figure we'd chosen to emulate, sharing little known stories about our characters that we'd picked up while putting our costumes together. As the house began to fill, you could feel the energy between the guests as they heartily greeted each other.
The crescendo was reached about midway through the evening, when the surprise guests of honor arrived. Except there wasn't a hush that spread over the house. I was in the basement, and heard someone cry out after opening the front door. The cry grew to a roar, but it was a jubilant sound, screaming and yelling mixed with laughter.
A few minutes later, someone in a blue suit and a earpiece came down the stairs to the basement, stopping at the landing that opened into the room to announce "the next president of the United States, Barack Obama."
Then the guests who came as Barack and Michelle Obama turned the corner and all hell broke loose. Tall, skinny, with wheatish colored skin, short cropped hair, an elongated face and lips that he had blackened with costume makeup, our Barack Obama lookalike was dressed in the same blue suit you saw Obama wear all last spring. Accompanying him was a woman who could have been Michelle Obama's cousin, with the same long legs, long arms, short torso and a wig that brought out the broadness in her cheekbones, just like Michelle's.
Barack Obama high fived Farrakhan. He shot pool with the Buffalo Soldier. He drank liquor with Mahalia Jackson, admired Josephine Baker I's handmade costume, and took pictures with everybody.
I thought about all this as I looked at the picture above this morning. Then I reread the email. The link at the bottom had "dailykos" in it after the author's name. I'm a member myself of the Daily Kos, a progressive political web portal, so I figured I could at least get the name of the author straight before I wrote about his amazing email. A few seconds later, I had his email address and a website address for him. Two clicks later, I laughed out loud - Mr. Richard Kenyada was right here in Atlanta!
Since I'd come this far, I said to myself as I explored his websites, why not shoot him an email and do a quick interview with the man behind "Inauguration Ball"?
An hour later, I had his response in my inbox.
Mr. Richard Kenyada is the author of "Inauguration 2009", which will be included in his new book titled "Reflections in the Dark Room: The Black Essays". Mr. Kenyada is a community activist in his own right, blending his technology background with a sense of service to operate "Mr. Kenyada's Neighborhood, Inc.", an organization dedicated to promoting computer literacy and computer ownership in the African American community. He also runs a discussion forum called "The Drum", a Society of Voices.
Mr. Kenyada, you have certainly got the internet buzzing over your piece.
Kris, the response has been overwhelming. I was in the middle of putting the final touches on my new book, Reflections in the Dark Room. Like everyone else, I was caught up in the election and the early voting in Georgia. The long lines simply thrilled, and fascinated me. I'll never forget... it was October 29th - 6 days before the election.
I edited a shorter version of the Inauguration Ball 2009, and I called it "Inauguration Ball" instead of Inaugural Ball so that it would be easier to track down using Google. I really wanted to see how much of a buzz it would cause. I knew it would hit the right chord with people because I wept some when writing it.
When I posted it on Daily Kos, the response was immediate and exciting. I started receiving e-mails from all over the world including two reporters from England. There were emails from teachers asking permission to use the piece in their classes. Emails from social workers who wanted their senior centers to experience the piece. And many more people just wanted to thank me.
In fact, I still receive 2 or 3 emails a day, some asking for a copy. So I had a small poster-sized print made up and I send prints to those who are very interested. When the book is available in a few weeks (early February), I'm sure that the essay will sell many copies because it includes the FULL version of the essay.
With all the famous black people in our history to choose from, how did you decide who to spotlight in your piece?
I started out with two famous people - Martin Luther King, Jr and Malcolm X. They have always been the two angels on my shoulders, and my dream of them sharing a laugh together was the foundation of Inauguration Ball 2009. From there, it took off in all directions - politics, entertainment, science, civil rights - all pioneers in their own right. Editing the piece down for the Internet posting was the hardest thing to do because everyone belonged there.
You yourself are a community activist, operating "Mr. Kenyada's Neighborhood". Do you see any potential for the Obama presidency to inspire more African Americans to get involved at the grass roots level?
Yes! As soon as President Obama takes his seat in the Oval Room, he will be an inspiration to millions of people all over the world, but particularly African Americans, who often have self esteem issues. Obama has always stressed personal responsibility, and that's why I admire him so much.
He understands that the greatest debt owed to African Americans in the aftermath of slavery is the debt that we owe to ourselves. We have internal work to do, and it must be accomplished at the most basic levels - in our homes and throughout our neighborhoods.
The dream motif is a strong part of the African American culture. Do you think modern day Americans allow themselves to dream enough?
We all dream, but few seek seek to wake up and do the work necessary to implement those dreams. Many see Dr. King, for example, as a "Dreamer," but the reality is that his greatness lies in the fact that he rolled up his sleeves and did the work. He was much more than a dreamer; he was a doer. Black men, in particular, need to follow the lead of accomplished African Americans throughout history and step up to the challenge.
I've read in comments by you about the piece that this is the short version - the long version is in your book, "Reflections in the Dark Room: The Black Essays", which is supposed to be available this month. When will it hit bookshelves, and where can we get it?
In late January or the first week in February. The new book will be available on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble, but those interested will be able to come to my website, www.kenyada.com/forums where I will have a link taking them to my publisher's page for my books. And if they contact me directly, I will send them an autographed copy.
Is there anything else you'd like to say about the way "Inaugural Ball 2009" has gone on to become a viral phenomenon?
Well, it's a double-edged sword, really. It's gotten so popular that a few people have even removed my name from the emails and replaced it with their own, claiming ownership of the piece. That's a form of flattery that I could probably do without. But overall the experience has been a great one.
My 83-year old Mom in New York City received a copy, and re-read it over and over again, exclaiming to anyone near..."That's my son!" Kris, it doesn't get any better than that. I only wish my Dad, who actually marched on Washington back in 1963, had lived to see this day.
Of course, I also hope that President-elect and Mrs. Obama get to read it. I could not be more proud of their accomplishments, just as I imagine that they are proud of the accomplishments of the icons mentioned in my essay.