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The Trouble With the Inauguration

The trouble with the inauguration is that I'm going to be watching it.

In my high school. With my students.

And I'm really afraid I'm going to cry.

There's an unspoken law about successful teaching--never cry in front of a teenager. Younger kids sometimes find it appealing when middle-aged people get teary... I remember, when the kids in my sixth grade class threw me a surprise party at the end of my student teaching there, how happy they were at a visible sign that They'd Done Good. ("Those are happy tears, right Ms. Bishop?" one student chirped.)

But teenagers are not like that. They are emotion-phobic, despite their personal penchant for drama (or because of it) and it's not a good idea to be seen as too "emo"--at least, not if you're, like, their parents' age, you know?

Which may be too bad; I may not be able to refrain from getting verklempt while I watch Mr. Obama become the next president of the United States. And, though I did vote for the man, and am at least cautiously optimistic about his presidency overall, that is so not the reason why.

It's the symbol, dammit. And I don't think that my kids, however sensitive and compassionate they may be, will quite be able to grasp the importance of this particular symbol to members of my generation... any more than I can grasp the implications of it to a black American.

I grew up in a United States where blacks and whites hated one another--flat out hated one another--on a frighteningly everyday basis. And I don't care what the color of your skin is, when you're a kid, the sights and sounds of that level of antipathy hurts your stomach when you think about it. Even in liberal New England, I was exposed to plenty of pictures of screaming anti-bussers in Southie, the photographs of burned-out storefronts in downtown Springfield after Martin Luther King's assassination, and unselfconsciously racist comments by members of my grandparents' generation.

I used to have nightmares about race riots coming to my green rural neighborhood. When you're a child, the world is very small. (Ask the children of the 9/11 generation how many of them feared a terrorist attack in their peaceful small towns; most I've asked did.) And when you're a child, all you know is bewildered feelings of inadequacy around unbridgeable, unspeakable divisions like racism.

If anyone has a notion how a priviledged white girl in an all-white suburban town in the 1970s could have fought the beast Racism, I'd love to hear it.

But I did what all children do: I grew up, tucked away the knowledge of those parts of the world I could not understand which frightened me, and I went on with the business of creating an adulthood. I ceased to think of this unbearable, incomprehesible stain on my country and my self--unless I had one of those rare openings (an openly racist joke or comment from one of my almost-entirely white acquaintance) that let me do something to act against racism, in whatever small way. But, probably like most of us, I have dealt with this wound in American life mainly through silence and averting my eyes from that part of me which bleeds.

I've gotten on with life. What else is there?

And now comes this. Here comes a black man that apparently enough white men and women could feel safe with that--and how is it I am still stunned with surprise, friends?--he became president. And he is cutting like a buzz saw through all the layers of insulation wrapping that old, old wound in me.

I am feeling within me, resounding like a gong, the question I couldn't articulate as a child, that no one ever asked.

What would I give to have it just go away, this awful, ghastly racist hatred thing? What would I do, if I could somehow magically wave a wand and undo all that injustice, and set us all free of it?

The question has entered my heart, you see. I can hear it now--it never had more than pain to communicate to me when I was a kid--and it makes me weep.

I would give anything, wouldn't you? Wouldn't anyone?

Hey--I know the plausible answer to that, looking at history, is, well, no. Otherwise there would have been no slavery; there would have been no organized and systemic opression of "freed" slaves in this country, no Klan and no my grandparents' condescending and oblivious racist comments. There'd be no edging away from the black man walking down a dark street, no racial imbalance between the inmates on death row, and no scarcity of black men and women in all professions and all levels of government. History says, people won't give up a damn thing they don't have to in order to live in peace.

Screw history. History is wrong. My inner six year old knows that. There is a part of each of us that wants justice the way it wants fresh air and green grasses, and it is only the armor of cynicism we put on as we grow into adulthood that lets us pretend otherwise, and lets us act as if profit mattered more to us, or convenience, or our own small self-interest.

The election of the first black president has cracked my armor like the shell of a lobster, and the painful truth of just how much I want peace, how much I want justice, is flowing like the sting of salt water into all my secret places.

No--there is no magic wand, and no, the work is not done because a single mortal man will take the oath of office to become the first black president of my country.

But I'm cracked open by the strength of my childhood wish for a world of mercy and love. And all I can do is stand here, helpless as that child, and weep.

Comments

Hystery said…
Cat, I've been weeping too. Can't seem to stop myself. I also become emotional whenever I teach African American history. As I was reading a Langston Hughes poem, one of my students laughed at me, "Are you crying?" Of course I was. I'm of a mind that one cannot be emotionally honest and tell that story with its depths of grief and heights of hope without tears. For me, no other collection of American stories has the power to make me feel quite so human. It is not for nothing that the other human rights movements in this nation have always been inspired by the African American struggle for justice and freedom in the United States.

I think that you should let your students see you cry. They may feel uncomfortable but the part of them still child-like will wonder at it and the part of them reaching for maturity will know and understand. Years from now they will remember the humanity of your reaction and that will be the lesson they carry away.
Yewtree said…
Your blogpost brought tears to my eyes. I know what you're talking about. Thanks for articulating it.

Just go for it, if it happens.
anilsays said…
The world changes - mostly for the better. This is one of those times. If you fail to be touched by it, then you haven't been a part of it at all..... Well written!
Pax said…
Cat,

For me, at least, it is the overwhelming and intoxicating sensation of knowing and feeling our Nation lurching closer towards our ideals.

It is one thing, for me, to have grown up learning about the African American Civil Rights movement... to speak to the idea that anyone can grow up to become President...

As a gay man, as a Pagan, there is that small part of me that says ~except for folks like me~ ... now I can honestly say... ~maybe in my lifetime~

Thanks for that My Fellow Americans!

Peace,
Pax
Arachne said…
I am so glad I am not the only white person crying over this-I grew up in the south in the 60's and 70's, and can still remember being appalled at the age of 5 when I noticed the "whites only" water fountain in our local grocery store. And my parent's reaction to my obstinate refusal to ever, ever use it-or any other facility marked "whites only".

Today has been such a blessing to the world!
Yewtree said…
I cried.

@Arachne: well done!
I understand your feelings, Cat, at least I think I do. I was brought up with mostly whites in Philadelphia. Blacks and whites just did not intermingle, but if there was any prejudice, it was covert and I didn't notice it.

I think it's valuable for those kids to see you cry in this instance. They could see plenty of tears on the TV coverage, and not just from blacks.

I cried for other reasons. One, because I think Barack is such a fine man, smart, centered, with integrity, and he has such a lovely family. He is such an appealing man, and such a huge improvement over the previous administration. Maybe even over all previous administrations. We shall see. I'm not expecting miracles, but I am confident that he'll listen to us citizens.

He is half white, you know. Has that been forgotten?

The inauguration has done wonders lifting my spirit.
Steve Hayes said…
As a non-American I had a different reaction but similar in a way.

At last the Americans have elected an intelligent president. The thing about Obama is not that he's black, but that he's smart, and that he is not a dull grey man like most of his predecessors. I don't think I've seen Americans getting so excited about getting a new president since Kennedy.

And seeing Joe Biden take the oath was a special moment too -- the end of the eminence grise, Cheney, whom more that one journalist likened to Dr Strangelove.
Anonymous said…
I agree with Hystery and Macha: let them see you cry. The strong emotion of embarrassment will fix the moment all the more firmly in their memories. It will also give them permission to be a bit more fully human, with all the emotional grace that entails.

Thanks to all of you for helping to articulate why it was that *I've* been crying so much in the past week. It's also due to the painful joy of seeing so many others weeping for joy. And I am delighted to be privileged to share that moment with so many.

Most of all, I am so relieved to be able to be proud of my government -- and my country -- again! Yes, we have a long way to go. But what joy to be stepping out on that good road again!

Bright and dark blessings,

Marilyn
anj said…
Oh Cat - You speak my mind and heart here. Did you cry? I did, and here is what has surprised me - every time I see Michelle Obama the tears flow more. I LOVE seeing her in a place of honor. Love it love it love it.

My sons said their teachers cried too. I think they would have been disappointed if the adults around were not crying; they got how big it is.
Tara said…
What a thoughtful post. I had tears in my eyes when I watched it on tv.

Thanks for submitting my blog to MetaPagan. I'm new to the pagan blogging world so I really appreciate your help!
Thanks to all who offered support and/or your own reactions!

It's hard to believe it has only been a week since the Inauguration. (Not sure if that's about the speed of my life or Obama's agenda. Could be both, I guess!)

I did cry, as it happens... but I was sitting in the dark, away from most of my students, so the question of whether or not it would have been good or bad for the tears to show didn't matter in the end. I was impressed, though, by the quality of listening in the silence during his speech. And even my least attentive kids, who admitted afterwards they were not really paying attention to the words, have spoken again and again of how protective they feel about Obama--they are, as a group, so concerned about the risks that man has taken, in taking on the job of leading this country as a black man.

Not bad for a nearly all-white group of rural teenagers.

I like my students. They make me hopeful (when they don't fill me with at least a short-term despair at how little attention they sometimes want to pay to me, that is!)

Tara, thanks for stopping by. I hope you'll come by again--and for other readers, let me just put in a plug--Tara's Merry Meet blog may be new, but so far, it looks like it's going to be an interesting one. Anyway, I'll be following it, to see what else she has to say.

Bright Blessings!

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