On Saturday evening, we loaded up 2 cars with folks ranging from 13-45 years old and drove through the night to Washington DC. It snowed from Wisconsin to Maryland and we braved whiteouts in mountainous Pennsylvania, crawling at 25 mph, to finally get to my cousin’s house in Bethesda at noon on Sunday.
The 4 high school and college kids crammed into a guest room, tucked into sleeping bags. I slept on the living room floor, and Yvette and her son, Ramsey slept in another guest room.
During the 3-day whirlwind of inauguration and related events, we barely slept and barely ate. I barely did my yoga practice, early one morning before we left for the Civil Rights Prayer Breakfast. We had no time to read, no time for the kids to study for their upcoming final exams, no time to cook a decent meal, no time to check email. Meanwhile, my son Malachi got kicked off the Shorewood High School varsity basketball team for missing 2 practices, according to a text message from his coach.
Let me tell you, we sacrificed a lot to get to Washington for January 20, 2009. Why bother?
I’d never been tempted to attend an inauguration. I went to DC in January 2004 as a civic duty to protest the results of the election made controversial by Diebold et al, and to demonstrate with tens of thousands to declare, “Not my president! Not my war!” But I’d never gone to celebrate a presidency. When friends asked why I’d want to be at such a mob scene for a centrist politician, I answered that I just wanted to be there to breathe the air.
The buzz could be felt as far north as the swing state of Ohio. Stopping to buy gas around midnight outside Cleveland, I asked a woman in line, an African American in her 30s, if she was headed to inauguration. Now, I’m not the type to start up conversations with strangers in public places. I’ve watched my father-in-law chat up strangers in restaurants and such, and have attributed it to a certain level of coziness and familiarity, which comes with being a white man in a patriarchal white supremacy. But in that moment at the rest stop, I spontaneously reached out to this woman.
“Yeah, I’m headed down to DC,” she answered, with 5 children in her mini-van, ranging from 3 months to 7 years, driving by herself through the night to her mother’s in Baltimore while the kids slept.
I talked to other strangers at other rest stops, which became more crowded as we got closer to DC. We met folks from all the midwestern swing states, running on adrenaline just like us, to get a glimpse of the man we’d elected. We all shared a mission, as if we were all, hundreds of thousands of us, attending the same national convention. We shared an intimacy as well as a sense of national solidarity, honking at the cars with Obama signs in the windows and giving a thumbs-up on the highway.
I experienced a sense of belonging, which was new to me. As an immigrant, a person of color, and a woman, I’ve sometimes felt triply marginalized, a consummate outsider. This time, I felt I was attending my own party. No longer outside looking in, but an integral part of a national milestone.
In the car, we researched how many degrees of separation were between each of us and Obama, and learned that almost all of us knew someone who knew Obama, so only 1-3 degrees divided us. My brother was in his 7th grade class at Punahou, Yvette know someone who worked closely with him during the campaign, Cindy’s hairdresser’s friend coordinated locations for his campaign, and so forth. Somehow we all felt we had a piece of him, that he was our brother, our friend, our neighbor.
At inauguration itself, the moment that moved me to tears was not Obama’s speech, Alexander’s poem, nor Lowry’s prayer. The moment that moved me the most came at the least expected time. As the event was closing, Ramsey and I walked downhill into the crowd during the singing of the national anthem. I watched thousands of people with their hands on their hearts singing the song I typically ignore, the same way I try to tune out the flight attendant’s seat belt instructions so I can read my magazine. Who even likes the Star Spangled Banner, with its militaristic imagery and valorizing of battle? Plus, as an immigrant and Asian American I’ve always been “other,” never completely at home in the USA.
But looking into the faces of the multi-racial crowd, their eyes glued to the jumbo-tron, and lips moving in unison, I felt at that moment for the first time ever, that maybe this IS my nation, my home. It was frankly shocking to see Asian Americans so earnestly singing this vexing song, but I, too, as my tears flowed, engaged in that moment of belief that the promise of America just might include people like me. Can we be the land of the free?
Let’s get to work, friends.