Along with I don’t know how many million people around the world, we watched Barack Obama’s inauguration as America’s first African-American President. It felt as if the ceremony washed away eight dreadful years of feeling that everything American was despicable. Instead, there was a sense of real nobility: of democracy and the power of the people as expressed in the voices of the two million-strong crowd – quite possibly the largest mass of humanity ever to have gathered in one place for a single political moment – and of core American values restated.
It wasn’t just Obama’s address, but each element of the ceremony that seemed to express this nobility. From the opening remarks by senator Dianne Feinstein, the remarkable Invocation by evangelical pastor Rick Warren to Aretha Franklin’s spine-tingling performance of My Country ‘Tis of Thee. From the poem by Elizabeth Alexander to the Benediction by civil rights’ veteran the Reverend Dr Joseph E Lowery. Taken with Obama’s address, all of these elements contributed to a powerful whole.
Obama’s address has, by now, been analysed extensively. To me what was striking was the degree of radicalism (on human rights, climate change, American power in the world, corporate greed) that was clothed in American tradition and history. It was rhetorical but sober, and at its heart you felt there was muscle, sinew and above all, there was the emphasis – both in domestic and foreign issues- on the need for mutuality and mutual respect. The rejection of the Bush years was contained in the passage in which he stated that America now will not sacrifice her ideals for security, that she will extend hand of friendship to hostile nations if they will unclench their fists – and, best of all, there was the specific pledge Muslim world:
We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace. To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.
Rick Warren Invocation
Elizabeth Alexander Praise Song for The Day
Praise song for the day.
Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each others’ eyes or not, about to speak or speaking. All about us is noise. All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues. Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair.
Someone is trying to make music somewhere with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.
A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky; A teacher says, “Take out your pencils. Begin.”
We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; words to consider, reconsider.
We cross dirt roads and highways that mark the will of someone and then others who said, “I need to see what’s on the other side; I know there’s something better down the road.”
We need to find a place where we are safe; We walk into that which we cannot yet see.
Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.
Praise song for struggle; praise song for the day. Praise song for every hand-lettered sign; The figuring it out at kitchen tables.
Some live by “Love thy neighbor as thy self.”
Others by first do no harm, or take no more than you need.
What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to preempt grievance.
In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp — praise song for walking forward in that light.
Benediction by Joseph Lowery
- Full coverage of the Inauguration in the Guardian
- Pictures: Obama Inauguration (Times)
- No inaugural address has so thoroughly rejected the political philosophy and legislative record of the previous administration: Jonathan Raban
- Let it be told to the future world, that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet and to repulse it. — President Barack Obama quoting Thomas Paine, The American Crisis #1, December 23, 1776. More on the historical circumstances here. See also Obama’s Vindication of Thomas Paine
- From Aretha Franklin to Woody Guthrie, when America sings about itself, it draws on far more than just pomp and circumstance: Laura Barton
- Reborn in the USA: America is great again (Times)
- White House website
- Timeline: The presidents of the United States