Sunday, January 25, 2009

Reflections on the Week That Was.... Inaugural Week 2009

Some thoughts on the Inaugural Week that Was, in the context of a letter to my cousin Martha, who traveled from her home in New Jersey with her 16-year-old son Alex to the inaugural....

Hi Martha --

Thanks so much for calling on Thursday after your trip to DC. It was great to hear the infectious enthusiasm in your voice after attending the inaugural. So glad that you and Alex could be there. I've had a number of friends sending me their reports all week (some even acting as "reporters" for my radio show), and it sounds as if it was a magical place to be.


My friend, Tammy Baldwin (now our Congresswoman) and I drove out together to DC for the inaugural in 1993. I'd just finished working as media director for the Clinton-Gore campaign in northern Wisconsin, included coordinating visits by both Al and Hillary. Tammy had just been the first openly gay person elected to our state legislature. So it was an exciting time. One of the highlights was attending the first-ever Triangle Ball, where Melissa Etheridge made her public "coming out" debut by rushing onto the stage and surprising kd lang with a full mouth kiss! That whole weekend was a lot of fun, but nothing compared to the energy and sheer numbers of people celebrating in the street at the Obama inaugural. And the hard part, in retrospect, about the '93 event was that just a few short weeks later, so much was in disarray. The gays in the military debate had deteriorated into "don't ask, don't tell," and Hillary's fight for universal health care was in shambles, thanks in large part, to the well-coordinated efforts of the far right wing.


This time, though, I think that things are going to be different. I certainly don't agree with everything that Obama is doing, and all of his appointments. However, I do think that there's an opportunity for some real change to occur. That's in part because Obama himself is not only a persuasive leader, but also a master strategist. And another major difference this year is that the people who supported him haven't gone into hiding post-election, thanks to the new media and all of the young people newly-energized by countless organizations. As we've resolved at several rallies in Madison this week, including one last night featuring Madison-based John Nichols of the Nation Magazine, we're going to keep this administration and this Congress accountable in ways we've never been able to do before. What a wonderful time to live through! And, I hope, what an antidote to the poisonous residue left us by the Bush administration--an antidote that will result in a world left in much better shape to Alex, Rebecca, Sol, Marchel, Carl and Cole and their generation. At least now, there's hope.


While I wish I could have been there in Washington on Tuesday, I had a very meaningful experience back here in Madison watching the inauguration with a friend who was visiting from Alabama, an African-American woman who is a veteran of the civil rights movement. I think I've probably told you about the oral history project and cultural exchange I've been working on, based out of the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma, and the University of Wisconsin. The woman who spearheads those efforts, Joanne Bland, was a veteran of the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March back in 1965 at the age of 11--having already been arrested 13 times for voting rights-related civil disobedience. Joanne first met Obama several years ago at one of the jubilees marking an anniversary of the march. That night, he snuck out of his black tie dinner engagement, and spent three hours with Joanne touring her museum, hungry for tales of the movement that laid the foundation for his historic run for the presidency. Later, Joanne and Barack marched together across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and a photo of Joanne appeared on the front page of the New York Times. (Inserted below)

As I'm sure you know, the legacy of racism didn't disappear from Selma overnight following the passage of the voting rights act back in 1965. Despite the fact that 65 per cent of Selma is black, it took another 35 years to elect the first black mayor. Voter suppression efforts still run rampant there and in neighboring communities like Marion. Joanne has remained an unwavering activist over the years, continuing to fight for equal rights while also working to capture the unsung history of hundreds of veterans of the movement whose stories have never been told. She's seen a lot, and lived through a lot of the worst nightmares associated with what so many others have experienced as the American dream. Despite those realities, though, she is one of the most optimistic and inspirational people I've met--and she transmits that optimism to today's young people in her many speaking engagements to middle and high schools all across the country.

And yet, it's been hard for her--hard to see the discrepancy between where we should be as a country, and where we actually are.... For many years now, she's found it impossible, for example, to say the Pledge of Allegiance when she visits schools, because it's words too often ring hollow for her.

And that's why it was so incredibly powerful to hear her singing along in beautiful harmony as the national anthem was played during the inaugural ceremony. All three of us present in her hotel room watching CNN were already in tears, and there was something that moved us each to sing out this song with a tender passion that none of us had ever experienced before. Joanne had shared earlier with us the same thing that many of my African-American friends have shared in the days since the election--that she knew, like Dr. King, that this day would eventually come, but that she never expected for it to come in her lifetime. As the ceremony ended, she told us that this was the first time in 30 years that she'd been able to sing this song again, this time with pride.

After watching the ceremony with Joanne, we headed over to the student union for a reception I'd arranged for students and faculty who've worked with Joanne over the years as interns and volunteers in Selma. Each person had been deeply touched by that experience, some had even been moved to change the course of their studies, and their careers. For another couple of hours, the dozen or so of us gathered together around the conference table poured forth our long-held frustrations about the state of race relations nationally and in Madison.... and then, even the most cynical among us could not help but also share how the words and images streaming forth from Washington had opened us up again to holding out hope for our most deeply held dreams about a nation and a world transformed.



That night, on an impulse, I decided to attend the film, "Slumdog Millionaire," at the new Sundance Theater complex that Robert Redford recently brought to town. It's been almost 20 years since Mom and I spent six weeks together traveling India, but the recent nonstop coverage of the attacks in Mumbai had recently rekindled many memories of our time there. The movie takes place, in large part, in the labyrynthine alleyways connecting the thousands of "hutments" housing the poorest of the poor--flimsy structures made from cardboard and corrugated metal that barely pass for shelter in the slums that ring Mumbai. It's the first thing you see after traveling out from the airport. Because we had friends who'd lived in India for many years, we'd seen many aspects of India life that other tourists are shielded from, but we never ventured forth into these hutments. And so over the years, my image of life in these squalid neighborhoods was of people lurking in the shadows in some kind of subhuman twilight zone, people with whom I had little in common, so basic was their need to do everything they could merely to survive. But the film portrayed, instead, a very different reality.

"Slumdog Millionaire" moved me in ways that no other film had done for many years. There's no question that it evokes in startling terms the harshness of life in the hutments. However, through its depictions of the lives of three young protaganists, who it follows from their pre-teens to young adulthood, it erased in me the fallacy that these were people living out some kind of alien, sub-human existence. These young people were extremely likable, and amazingly full of a love of life despite every poverty-based challenge they encountered. Amidst its gritty realism, it's a work of fiction, of course, that often reads like a fairy tale, complete with its requisite happy ending and uplifting but highly improbable Bollywood production number. But there was an authenticity present in it that touched me deeply.


In these past several years, as I've gone deeper in my examination of the black civil rights movement, and continued to work as a gay rights activist, I've been struck again and again how the forces that perpetuate bigotry and prejudice do so by de-humanizing the people around whom they try to generate a climate of anger and fear.

And it's also struck me that human inter-relationship is the great countering force that allows us to overcome these fears, and see each other as human beings with common hopes and dreams.

The images that streamed forth on Tuesday of the crowds gathered for the inaugural symbolized for me the kinds of meetings of diverse peoples that ultimately help to move us forward. Time and again, the TV screens reflected back new friendships across virtually all of the lines that have divided us, wrought from the shared experience of that day.

What a day it was.... So many challenges lie ahead. But it really does seem as if a new day has dawned.

Again, so sorry not to have returned your call right away... I've just been elected president of our local United Nations Association, and my evenings have been tied up with some associated events.... I'll be shifting gears in a moment to get ready for my radio show, (, which now airs at 2pm local time, but will try to give you a call later in the day.

Didn't expect this to turn into a major journal entry, but hearing the energy in your voice on Thursday, knew that you'd understand. Looking forward to hearing more about your own experiences in DC. Also hoping to have the chance to hear from Alex about his trip to England with Tim.... Much love sent your way. Best to Bob, Alex and Rebecca, and your dad and Tim.



No comments:

Post a Comment