There are times when I really love living in Atlanta. I can't imagine a better place to be for the inauguration of President Barack Obama (save perhaps the Washington Mall!). Here in Martin Luther King Jr.'s city, just a day after we celebrated his life and work, his spirit looms especially large over today's inauguration.
I won't say that the dream has been achieved. Even I'm not quite that naive. But as President Obama himself said, the fact that he could be standing before the nation today, taking the highest oath of office, in a country where merely sixty years ago his father would not even have been served in a local restaurant - that's a powerful symbol. It's an idea that has immense potential to effect reality.
And it's got me thinking about something I've been meaning to post for a while. I've seen and heard a lot of people, both in mainstream media and online blogs and even in coffee shops, saying that it doesn't matter that Obama is a black man. All that matters is his policies.
I can understand where those people are coming from. And maybe in one way it is a fulfillment of the dream, if they really are judging him by the content of his character and not by the color of his skin.
And yet at the same time, as a white girl who still has so much to learn about race, I have to say: I think you kind of have to be white to say that it doesn't matter.
"Say it plain," Elizabeth Alexander says, "that many have died for this day."
It's a raw truth, and something I'd somehow managed to avoid for most of my life. That's white privilege for you, I suppose. But here, in Martin Luther King's city, you can't avoid it. It soaks the air and cries out from the streets and you breathe it in with each rise and fall of your chest. This country has never had a reconciliation for its "original sin." And there are days when it feels like the things we don't talk about are eating this city alive.
America is a very young country. Less than 200 years ago, men and women who looked like Michelle and Barack Obama were kept as property and denied the most basic human rights. Even 60 years ago, Barack Obama's father would not have been allowed to eat in a DC restaurant. Lynchings are still not things of the past, and the highly disproportionate number of black men being murdered by the state in the name of justice speaks for itself.
"Say it plain," she says, "that many have died for this day."
Barack Obama's election does not put an end to racism by any stretch of the imagination. But it is an immensely powerful symbol.
And yes, it matters.Read Elizabeth Alexander's whole poem here. I highly recommend it!