The mass of people on the National Mall who gathered to watch the inauguration of Barack Obama as president of the United States on Tuesday was simply stupendous. The anticipation seemed to reach around the globe. The announcers were all falling all over themselves to remind us that Barack Obama was about to be the nation’s first African American president. As we watched the Obama family settle in behind the lectern, I thought back to this time last year, when the frenzy had just begun over this one term Senator from Illinois with the million dollar smile.
How far we had come.
To some people, Barack Obama was simply a man running for president. For others of us who were African American, he was more than that. He was a man who not only looked like us, but remembered us, and sounded like he was going to work to continue to connect to us even after he joined the most exclusive men's club in the world.
In his inaugural speech, Barack Obama recognized the small village that was the birthplace of his father as a part of his heritage, but to many of us watching, he was from Alabama and Mississippi and South Carolina and Maryland and California and Illinois and Georgia and Florida as much as he was from Kenya or Kansas or Hawaii.
The president's steps and the first lady's steps as they walked down Pennsylvania Avenue during the parade weren’t just the steps of two people - they were the steps of generations of men and women denied full participation in American society by the color of their skin, the steps of millions of peoples of color who live in America today whose lives are just beginning to resemble those of our paler brethren, the steps of their long dead ancestors, and the steps for their own children, who may very likely get the chance to live as adults in a world that sees them more for who they are than any generation of brown-skinned people in the history of this country.
Some of us are almost there already. Some of our neighbors are white. Our friends are multicultural. Our educations have been obtained from the best schools in the land.
But this is not the mass of black Americans. Too many of us are still struggling to connect intimately with other cultures. Too many of us are still rolling our eyes at the thought of higher learning. Too many of us are now bound more from within than without, more from our own narrow worldviews than how the world now views us.
Those steps down Pennsylvania Avenue that Barack and Michelle Obama took yesterday, after the inauguration ceremony – they were for the mass of black Americans too. But they are not going to walk up to your home, knock on your door, then come in and take a seat on your couch. You’ve got to meet them halfway.
Barack Obama did not slide into the White House on his silver tongue. He trained his mind to think wider, deeper, faster, and longer than the competition. He took advantage of the best university system in the world. And he remembered, even after deciding to more fully embrace the African side of his heritage, to never forget how to connect to the rest of America that he grew up in.
So conjure up your own parade in your mind. Throw your shoulders back. Hold your head high. And when you walk, whether it's down the street, or in the grocery store, or the locker court, or the mall, remember that the steps you take are not yours alone – that you have just as many ancestors and forebears and modern day cheerleaders who are counting on you to stride into a future filled with all the good things America has to offer.