WE Did It!

By Suzy Barile

Within hours of Barack Obama’s 2008 election win, plans to travel with my daughter Jen to Washington, D.C., for his inauguration were under way.

This would be our third presidential swearing in, for we attended the Clinton ceremonies in 1992 and 1996, though my reasons now were far different than before. Seen as a return to youthful leadership for the nation, the Clinton-Gore ticket represented my generation, and I was thrilled to be a part.

However, neither win brought the tears that fell so unexpectedly on the evening of Nov. 4 as I acknowledged to Jen, “I never thought in my lifetime that I would see a black man as president.” These tears were deep-seated, born of having grown up in a time when segregation was rejected by the courts and that decision grudgingly accepted by the people.

We traveled to Washington on Sunday and visited with family on Monday, but our Inauguration Day plans were a bit loose. I viewed getting into the nation’s capital much as I do finding free parking for Cary’s Lazy Daze and the N.C. State Fair: as a long-time attendee of each, I refuse to pay to park at either.

“No sweat,” I told my cousin, with whom we eventually decided to stay. “We’ll take the Metro in and out. And we’ll try to see both the ceremony and the parade.”
Clearly I had yet to fathom what an estimated 2-million plus others intent on attending would truly look like.

All I can now say is “HA!” Yet it is a “HA!” filled with a great deal of satisfaction.

We did take the Metro, wisely buying our tickets the day before to avoid long lines. And though packed like sardines in the last car of the second train to enter the station once we arrived at 6:40 a.m., then standing and holding on tightly for the hour-long ride into L’Enfant Plaza, we remained confident of a good viewing spot.
Because the station’s escalators couldn’t handle the weight of the thousands of riders, it took another hour to make our way out of the station to daylight. Still we were optimistic. After a 30-minute, eight-block walk to the closest place we could find near a Jumbotron, we were three-quarters of the way between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial, just east of the Washington Monument, at the intersection of 15th Street and Independence Avenue.

We made it in just minutes before police closed the mall to visitors: It was full, and our ability to see the huge TV screen by peering between and over the shoulders of those standing in front of us was that confirmation.

For the next three hours, despite frozen fingers and toes, and a cold northwest wind blowing steadily, we waited and watched. It was clear America had united behind this first for our country, this son of a black African father and a white American mother. We saw no protestors, though they may have been present. We experienced no ugly exchanges as those in the crowd pressed against one another to catch a glimpse of the ceremony. We heard of no arrests– though our spot alongside a first aid station made for a morning of continuous, shrillingly loud sirens.

What we did witness time and again were dozens of acts of kindness.

There was the young black man who offered his seat on the Metro to an older woman and the Metro riders, ever-so-slowly exiting the L’Enfant Plaza station, making certain a grandmother from Texas didn’t become separated from her family. A Florida woman who asked for “just a peek at ‘him’” had her wish granted by those ahead of her, while a child from Chicago was led to the front of the line for a better view, and a young man who was taller than those behind him traded places so they could see.
I marveled at this selflessness.

As cries of “Amen,” “Yes!” and “Uh-huh” rose from the crowd during the prayers and words of wisdom of the day’s speakers, a poster held high underscored their resolve: “We did it!”

Jen and I also had done it. Even though we weren’t able to negotiate our way through the throng to the parade route, and found ourselves walking nearly six miles and crossing the 14th Street Bridge into Virginia after the over-taxed Metro was closed for several hours, we had see Obama sworn in as the nation’s 44th president and its first African-American leader.

Such a personal achievement was to be commended, I thought, and I was eager to share the details of our day with friends and family.

Then the taxi driver we hailed told us about winning a lottery ticket for a Green Card and a chance to come to America from his native Ethiopia. This past November – now a U.S. citizen -- he voted in his first presidential election for this man with African ties. What amazed him was how the leadership of the country was passed from one party to another with such dignity.

“All the world should learn from this,” he said.

His pride as he shared his story finally made clear to me the value of this day: Just as Obama reminded the millions of spectators that Inauguration Day 2008 was not his personal success, but everyone’s, and after he called for a renewed dedication from every American to take this nation forward, it was unmistakable -- “WE did it!”

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