I was there on the Mall on January 20th. I came with my girlfriend and her family. We arrived by Metro from Bethesda station and got off at Farragut North. We made the journey on the train along with thousands of people from all over the country to the nation’s capital to witness history.
I woke up at 4:30 am to be there. What drew us there-away from the comfort and warmth of our beds in 17 degree weather-was the inauguration of Barack Obama as the first African-American president of the United States. It was not just the symbolism. It was what his election said about America in the 21st century: here in this country, you can rise as high as you allow yourself; notwithstanding the circumstances of your birth or the color of your skin.
This is not a cliché. It is real. But it is not a given. You have to assimilate into the larger society. You have to learn to read and write. Speak English. Speak properly; whatever that means. You have to sweat it out with odd jobs to pay the bills and make the payments. To get a foot at the door, you have to earn that single most valuable American possession: a college diploma.
All these will still not guarantee you a place at the top. If you are a black person or a person of color, you have to deal with discrimination at the workplace and elsewhere, albeit of a subtle kind. To succeed, you need that unquantifiable element to be present: the element of luck. And a network. Talent and ability is not enough.
The 25-minute ride from Bethesda Metro to Farragut North was eventful. Hundreds lined up along the rails anxiously awaiting their turn to board the train to D.C. Winter coats. Jackets. Headwear. The very look of warmth.
As we trekked from the Farragut North station to the Capitol, through Constitution Avenue, I could not help but reflect on what Obama’s election meant to me as an immigrant from Ghana.
You see, I came here two days before 9/11. Once here, I sweated it out like everybody else to make a living. I’m still sweating. Odd jobs. Retail. The normal route all immigrants take when they first arrive in this country.
But wait! Here I was, walking to the inauguration of a man, who half a century ago, would not have been allowed to sit at the front of a bus or allowed to eat at the same lunch counter with a white person. I thought about the things we black people take for granted today. Mundane, everyday things we do without thinking about it.
Sometimes, African immigrants like myself, don’t sufficiently appreciate the sacrifices our African-American brethren had to make for us to enjoy the things we do today. The fact is-a lot of things we take for granted today-we owe to their struggle for equal and civil rights: Integrated restrooms, drinking fountains, schools, buses, restaurants, apartments.
The fact that I as an African immigrant can apply for a job today in America -and at the very least, expect to be considered -the issue of discrimination notwithstanding-is because my African-American brothers and sisters made it possible. They paved the way for me. I can’t thank them enough.
As we walked passed Constitution Hall, I could not help but remember Marian Anderson, the iconic African-American singer, who was denied the opportunity to sing there in 1939 by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) because she was black.
You know, Jim Crow was not an experience unique only to African-Americans. It affected all black and dark-skinned people who happened to find themselves in America in the 1960s.
On October 10, 1957, Ghana’s visiting Finance Minister, Komla Agbeli Gbedemah, was denied service at a Howard Johnson restaurant in Dover, Delaware because he was black. The bar attendant didn’t care whether Gbedemah had an accent or whether he was a government official. All she saw was the color of his skin. As far as she was concerned, he was just another black man up to no good.
The poor man was shocked. The press reported it. And President Eisenhower had no choice but to apologize to Gbedemah at the White House. That is the history of America.
But these United States was now bestowing the highest office of the land on a man whose father was an African immigrant student; a man who the framers of the U.S. constitution designated as three-fifths of a human being in 1787.
But that is the thing about America that many people do not understand. This is a country of contradictions. The founders of this nation-inspired by a higher calling-while still owning slaves-produced a blueprint for freedom and human dignity for everyman: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident,” they wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable Rights that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
As the crowd roared and screamed as Obama murmured the words “so help me, God!;-I felt the hands of Obama’s ancestors on his shoulders-men and women who had paved the way for this moment-praying for him . Olaudah Equiano… Frederick Douglas… Sojourner Truth… Harriet Tubman… Martin Luther King Jr…
And I wondered what David Hume would have thought of this moment–the idea of a non white person—taking the helm of a majority white nation. “I am apt to suspect the Negroes,” he wrote in his 1748 essay, National Characters, “and in general all other species of men to be naturally inferior to the whites.”
“We remain a young nation. But in the words of scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness,” President Obama began, breaking my reverie.
The speech was short, about 18 minutes long and sobering. A call to arms. A thinking man’s speech. I expected to jump and shout like the almost two million other people on the Mall. But all I could do was think. Think about my own life. My shortcomings; the many ways, I had fallen short of fulfilling my potential. The many ways I had sold myself short; been irresponsible.
“Our challenges may be new,” the new president continued, “the instruments with which we meet them may be new, but those values upon which our success depends—honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism—these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility—a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task.”
As I rode the train back home that afternoon, the words kept ringing in my ears: “there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit… than giving our all to a difficult task.” I resolved to work harder, to be more responsible, to be tolerant and fair to all in this nation; this place that had been generous enough to let me see this moment in history.