22 January 2009

The times they are a-changin' !

In 1969, I was in 7th grade, and America was still firmly engaged in a war of hearts and minds in south-east Asia -- Vietnam. The inner cities of America were burning, and two of my heroes had been killed less than 18 months earlier -- Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. I had pictures of both taped on the wall of my bedroom. It's not clear to me what made 7th grade a crucible moment in time for me, but I do remember that I was required to stand each morning and recite the pledge of allegiance to the American flag, and that instead I would stay seated and mute. Miss Schmidt, my homeroom teacher, would tell me afterward that I had to stand up and pledge with all the other students. I told her what I told my mother -- I could not recite the pledge since there was no "freedom and justice for all." Miss Schmidt said that it did not matter what my views were, and that if I didn't obey her I'd have to visit the school principal. The next day came and I sat. Miss Schmidt sent me to the principal's office and I did as I was told.

Needless to say I never gave in. Eventually, students were permitted to stand without reciting the pledge. That was something I could live with. Forty years have gone by since I last recited the pledge of allegiance. When there was freedom and justice for all, I vowed I would again.

Two days ago I stood on the Mall in our nation's capital, along with 1.8 million other people, and witnessed the swearing-in ceremony of our 44th president, a man named Barack Obama - an interracial man with roots in Kenya, Iowa and Hawaii. What seemed wholly unimaginable in 1969 has become a reality 40 years later.

I do believe in fate to some degree: the untimely deaths of Kennedy and King pushed America to face head-on its racism and social inequities; on November 4, 2009, America underwent a dramatic paradigm shift when it elected as its president a man in equal measure of Caucasian and African descent over a man who was 100% Caucasian.

It was not until the morning of the inauguration that I decided to be part of the migration to the Mall. I hate being cold and cold it was. I had already attended a presidential inauguration on a very cold day and learned that it was not fun. I decided to go because while many people would witness the event live on TV and be warm, it would be an entirely different thing to be able to witness this moment in person and recount it to my kids (and perhaps grandchildren some day). I also remembered Woodstock and how millions claimed they'd been there when only 200,000 people actually attended the concert.

Getting to the Mall proved difficult given the obstacles put in place to herd all of us toward the west side of the Mall and wedge us between the Washington Monument and the reflecting pool. I arrived early enough to position myself close to a large TV screen hitched to a trailer. There I was, watching the event on a 50' screen, among an ever-increasing sea of humanity. Being part of a jammed huge crowd sheltered me from the biting cold.

I reported the experience as it was happening via Twitter and sent out short messages about what it was like being part of the crowd that day. Once in a while, I would type the number of minutes left in the Bush administration. My nose ran and tears fell onto the small keyboard of my phone. I was overcome by memories of my 7th grade year and the reality of January 20th, 2009. Noon came, and Barack Obama became President. We listened to his speech, no one made a noise, unless it was to cheer something he said. I looked around and most people had tears streaming their cheeks as well. When Obama's speech ended, people started to make their way out of the Mall.

As I journeyed home up Connecticut Avenue, I wondered whether I could now pledge allegiance to the flag. Is there freedom and justice for all in America now?

My mother used to explain that the pledge was a goal rather than a statement. Many people have told me the same thing over the past 40 years. I have taught my children that they are free to do what they feel is right when it comes to pledging allegiance -- however, it is a rare decision they've had to make since most schools don't recite the pledge any longer.

Obama's election is one of the most significant events in my life. Perhaps I will have a change of heart next time I am asked to pledge allegiance to the American flag.

Inauguration Day was a good day and I am glad I witnessed it in person!