The second inauguration was about closing the gap between America's promise of equality and the reality for all
The people onstage at the Inauguration today, in spirit and in person, have always been a part of history in one form another, if you knew where to look and did the work. They’ve just never been this visible, nor this powerful.
A grandiose ceremony like an inauguration is about visibility as much as it is about repeating foundational rhetoric. Barack Obama’s second inauguration explicitly made the argument that not only did all those citizens — female and queer and brown and immigrant and belonging to different generations — belong there, but that they had come there through a necessary struggle to make all of America what it promised to be.
The most important line in Obama’s speech, to my mind, was, “For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing.” Closing the gap between the country’s pledge of liberty and equality and the lived reality of the centuries didn’t just happen. First there were radical struggles, the ones Obama invoked when he said that the self-evident truth of equality “is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.” Yes, that’s right: Our forebears. Our country. It’s a vision that recognizes separate experiences yet suggests they are not forces for division, but for a more honest unity.
Compare that with Obama’s sober 2008 inaugural speech, which had a far more conventional view of American history. Speaking about ancestors, he said, “For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life. For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth. For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn….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’s a different vision (and a fairly uncomplicated rendition of Westward expansion), one that puts the struggle firmly in the past and seeks the dissolution of difference. That Obama sought to rise above, as if such a thing could ever happen by force of language. This Obama realizes that things happen in the muck.
The presence of Myrlie Evers-Williams, giving the invocation, was a living reminder of such struggle and sacrifice. She, too, pointedly made the contrast between freedom in word and freedom in fact: “One hundred-fifty years after the Emancipation Proclamation and 50 years after the March on Washington, we celebrate the spirit of our ancestors, which has allowed us to move from a nation of unborn hopes and a history of disenfranchised votes, to today’s expression of a more perfect union.” Richard Blanco’s occasional poem was called “One Today,” beginning most stanzas with shared space (sun, ground, sky) but full of ambivalence, too: “some days giving thanks for a love / that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother / who knew how to give, or forgiving a father / who couldn’t give what you wanted.” He ended with a hopeful note, as all things would today: Shared stars that might be rearranged a bit: “a new constellation / waiting for us to map it / waiting for us to name it—together.”
This is not the first inauguration that has recognized the existence and contributions of people who are not white, Christian men, some of whom wrote unthinkably inspiring words and then owned slaves and denied women the vote. But it’s an inauguration that didn’t consider those contributors ancillary, to be “included,” but rather as central actors, the activists and poets and Supreme Court Justices. And presidents. It’s not the full picture of who runs the world — far from it — but today, through the labors Obama referenced, it feels like we’re getting closer to the execution.
Irin Carmon is a staff writer for Salon. Follow her on Twitter at @irincarmon or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. More Irin Carmon.
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