It could have been mistaken for a religious pilgrimage. The spirit of the crowds that gathered was not loudly partisan. There was giddiness to be sure, but the overriding feeling was solemn. The sense of History Being Made was on every corner, from the Sunday-best hats and cashmere coats in the crowd to the inescapable commemorative Obamabilia being hawked everywhere. A desire among the crowds who braved the cold to be merely present, to bear witness, to breathe the same air, to be part of this national ceremony that promised a renewal, a national resurrection of sorts. In an America beaten down by recession and wars, they had come to see with their own eyes the making of the First Black President.
As many as two million people were present for President Barack Obama’s inauguration. Two days before, some 400,000 had come together for a concert at the Doric temple columns of the Lincoln Memorial. It was here that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed in 1963 that he had a dream, and now the son of a white mother from Kansas and a father from Kenya was in the process of fulfilling it. Obama’s face was everywhere—on the massive banners draping the neoclassical columns of the white monumental buildings in the city, on buttons, T-shirts, a sea of magazine covers, his smile emblazoned on everything from tote bags to earrings.
His omnipresent iconic image has been compared to the propaganda posters of a Third World dictator. But the images around Washington were not authoritarian, or menacing; often they were downright devotional, showing Obama with his eyes uplifted, almost Christ-like, as if in private consultation with the heavens. While the religious overtones of his enthusiastic following have been compared to a cult of personality, and Oprah Winfrey’s description of him as “The One” became the target of partisan mockery, the inauguration, more crowded and emotionally charged than any in memory, suggested that the excitement was less about the cult of Obama than about a centuries-awaited ritual for the nation.
The First Black President. The sin of slavery—could it be finally expiated? The parade and the pomp, while marking a long-awaited end of the Bush era, seemed to mark something deeper, a purification of the original sin: a nation built in part on slavery and in which blacks in many southern states did not win a meaningful right to vote until 1965. Was that sense of cleansing real, or the self-delusion of those who had made this moment happen: black and white Americans alike?
Certainly for black Americans, Inauguration Day, with its embossed invitations and elaborate balls, was the grandest possible statement, broadcast across the globe and repudiating the myth of black inferiority, of underachievement, of the various historical stigmas associated with dark skin. But the ritual, presided over by the chief justice of the Supreme Court and celebrated with an ecstatic parade, was uplifting to white Americans as well—marking an end to their moral inferiority, and a declaration of their virtue. “In the excitement around Obama’s election there is a lot of self-flattery,” observes Shelby Steele, a scholar in race relations at the Hoover Institution who, like Obama, is biracial. “The whites are proud of themselves. It’s almost like a white pride day.”
Of course, African-Americans played a crucial role in electing Obama—coming out in full force during crucial votes in the Democratic primary and casting near-unanimous votes in his favour during the general election. But in a country that is still predominantly white, it was white voters whom he had to win over. Obama did so by intentionally presenting himself as a candidate for all Americans, playing down his race until he was forced to deal with it in a speech after his black pastor’s comments became a source of controversy. Steele calls Obama an impeccable “bargainer”—who tells white Americans, “I won’t rub the legacy of racism in your face if you don’t hold my race against me.”
But Steele is one of the observers (others include some supporters of Hillary Rodham Clinton) who argue that Obama was elected because of his race, not in spite of it. “This is a measure of how much whites have lived under a presumption of racism,” he says. “That they have lived under this accusation and it has been a real tension in white American life. A vote for Obama is an opportunity for whites to say, ‘See, I’m not racist, I am innocent.’ ”
Obama’s meteoric rise could not have happened to a white politician, he insists. “You don’t come from a backbench in the Illinois state legislature, and four years later you’re walking into the White House. He’s talented but not that talented. There is a hunger in white America to make this kind of a statement—and that is the wave that brought him forward.”
At a forum on race at Howard University, the day before the inauguration, Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., who ran for the presidency in 1984 and 1988, said Obama’s success was due in part to black pride and a longing for “redemption” among whites. “It was the uniqueness of his personality,” Jackson said, “plus pride, plus redemption—plus, for some, desperation.”