A Modest Inauguration Proposal
Over the weekend I got news from a family member that she had lost her job of 12 years. I also heard from a former student who is dealing with bankruptcy and possible foreclosure on her home, due, in part, to her student loan debt. And finally, I met a terrific woman at yoga class who had signed up as a way to deal with the financial and emotional stress from being caught in the “sandwich generation,” as she is a caretaker for her small children and elderly father. All three of these stories remind me of the ways in which “ordinary” people are suffering these days. I only need to look at the brisk business our local food bank and crisis ministry center is doing to know that we are in a depression, with little light at the end of the tunnel.
So I’ve been unable to work up much excitement for the forthcoming inaugural festivities. On one hand, I understand the desire people have to be witnesses to the historical occasion of seeing Barack Obama become the 44th president of the United States. It is a moment that should be captured, documented, and recorded for all posterity. But I fear that the occasion has become an excuse for an endless stream of parties, which are starting as early as this week. So as the media turns its attention to the haute couture, gourmet cuisine, and glitterati, will it forget to discuss the very reasons that a majority of Americans voted for Obama in the first place?
African American churches from the New York City and Philly area are sending literally hundreds of buses to Washington, D.C. next week. Since these are my folks, I have appealed to the various pastors I know: would their members be willing to take the money they are spending for a seat on a bus (that will leave NYC or Philly and have to turn right back around) and donate that money to help a member of their congregation who can’t pay their heating bill? Or donate that money to the “Children’s Defense Fund” or “Save Dafur” or some other charity in Obama’s name? The answer has been a unanimous “no.” People feel the need to say “they were there” when history was made. And so thousands from this area, and millions in total, will descend on Washington, D.C. for a glimpse of the first black president.
The part of me that understands this desire competes with the part of me that hopes people will truly hear the message of the hour, the inaugural speech that Obama will give to usher in his presidency. Will we remember who attended Oprah’s inaugural bash or will we remember the words Obama will speak? Will our focus be on the fashions or will our focus be on the work that needs to be done? I would have been there to march on Washington, D.C. in 1963 (had I been born!) because that collective show of force across race, religion, creed, and culture, sent a message loudly and clearly that the case for civil rights was the case for human rights. But I will not be in Washington, D.C. in 2009, because that is not where the battle is. The battle is in the unrest in Gaza; the battle is in the economic crisis in Detroit; the battle is in the health care system; the battle is in the crumbling urban infrastructure. So on January 20, 2009, while D.C. may be at the center of our nation’s thoughts, it is not the only place that so strikingly merits our undivided attention.
But recognizing and respecting the historical importance of the moment, I have a modest proposal: let every young American who was planning to attend the inauguration donate their train/plane/bus ticket, and their hotel room to an older American who never thought he or she would live long enough to see an African American president. As we would do on the bus or the subway, let’s give up our seats to those who have earned the right to sit. Let an older generation take their proper place at the front of the line for this historical event. Because in my lifetime, which I pray is long and healthy, I expect to see not only another president of color, but the first woman president as well. Let the internet and media-savy generation watch in HDTV, with Dolby-enhanced surround sound. Let our grandmothers and our grandfathers, many of whom literally had to sit at the back of the bus, enjoy their moment at the front. They are the shoulders upon whom Obama stands.