Tuesday, January 20, 2009


New Day Rising

It's a special day in the United States of America.

I can't allow any instinctive partisanship or default cynicism to get in the way of recognizing the uniqueness of this moment. It's easy for us to become tired of all the racial "overcoming" talk that has dominated airwaves, newsprint and internet bandwidth over the last few days. The constant references to Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.

I have been fortunate to be part of the American story for 38 years (as of tomorrow, January 21st). As an immigrant, I was adopted by the greatest country in the world. Still, I came here as young West Indian born boy, with a British background, and still had to navigate the choppy, sloppy and sometimes treacherous waters of race in America. Fortunate as I was to have a mother who insisted on the importance of education -- a predominantly Catholic education, at that -- I benefited from basic tools that helped me navigate those waters. But I was not blind to the world around me.

Not everyone was blessed in that way. Legacies of slavery and Jim Crow created institutional barriers for many who otherwise looked like me -- and not just in the South. Not all of those barriers have been torn asunder on this day in 2009 -- hello? the public education system? -- and social inequities can still be seen all around us. These are, it should be noted, inequities built up as much from class as they are about race.

That all said, the inauguration of Barack Obama is a major leap forward for this great nation. No, he doesn't have the power to "cure" racism -- any more than a clergyman has the power to "cure" sin. But the invocation of both Lincoln and King in recent days isn't mere liberal media navel-gazing and talent for self-congratulation. It's a solid, honest reflection that two great men lost their lives, partly from an attempt to battle a deep wound midwived with America's founding.

And now, 220 years after George Washington became this nation's first president, a black man will take the oath of office to lead the country Washington helped found. And, that he is "black" by way of an African father who came to America as a student -- rather than being part of the "black American" 400 year lineage -- is of no matter. To the contrary, his background marks him as the man for the moment, with a heritage combining heartland and immigrant experience. He arrives to lead a country that is more racially and ethnically mixed than at any time. And, more than recent occupants of the office he is about to enter, he appears to be a man who is solidly aware of who he is, where he is and when he is.

Goodness knows there will be many times for policy and political disagreements with this new president. The dire challenges of the time will require earnest and heartfelt debate. But, those are put aside for now. I am optimistic that he is, a fundamentally good man (with a generous spirit who honors both trailblazing forebears and one-time rivals). I am proud to call him my president and thankful that I am able to watch his bold step into history today.

More Inauguration Day thoughts of mine can be found here and here.

UPDATE: My late afternoon thoughts can be seen here.

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