Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Barack Obama’s promise to America

American weather websites have a wonderful phrase to describe the temperature once the wind chill has been taken into account. They call it the Real Feel. And the Real Feel of the extraordinary gathering in Washington yesterday was of a people coming in from the cold. Black people, people of colour, call them what you will, it was every American’s celebration, but it was a celebration for African-Americans more than most. A majority of the people present were black and, of them, a majority of their ancestors had come to this country in chains. “I get choked just to look at him,” Velda Howell, 50, from Chicago, said. “He only has to stand there, he doesn’t even have to say anything.”

Mrs Howell and her friends have a right to be emotional, and when a television camera came by, there was the predictable cheering and waving, but pride was much more evident than partying. “You think about what your ancestors went through, and it does weigh on you, it does cause you anguish,” Mrs Howell said. “I feel like I really am part of this country now. Part of the Constitution. Before, I just felt like I existed. I am still coming to terms with it.”

When Michelle Obama said last year, during her husband’s campaign, that it was the first time that she had felt proud to be American, it was seen as a gaffe and she retracted it swiftly, but it undeniably described how Mrs Howell and many others feel.

Ranged around a horseshoe-shaped hotel bar on 14th Street in central DC, their faces tilted up to the television screens and aglow with rapturous pride, perhaps 100 people watched in reverential near-silence, punctuated by loud amens, some “all rights” – and laughter whenever George Bush came on the screen. When President Obama thanked President Bush for his service to his country, the bar exploded with hoots of derision. As the screen split to include footage of people watching in Memphis, in Los Angeles, in Chicago, yelps of appreciation went up.

It was a mixed bunch in the bar, some residents, some people, myself included, ducking in at the last moment, frustrated in their efforts to get close to a Jumbotron screen. Much has been made of the Ring of Steel but the security was not heavy-handed: an occasional whoop of a siren, one or two amplified instructions to stick to the sidewalk, an occasional overheard request. “I need you to open your outer garment sir, I need to see right around your waistline.”

The headgear in the hotel bar tells the story. Large, well-groomed, mature ladies, their mink and sable and sealskin hats on their laps, took the front-row stools. “This is gonna be beautiful,” one said to her neighbour, settling in with 15 minutes to go. Aretha Franklin came on to sing My Country ’Tis of Thee. “Go on, baby,” one lady called at the screen. “Ain’t no big thing.” The ladies sang along with Aretha. Later they would dismount their bar stools for The Star-Spangled Banner and stand up straight. One or two put their hands over their hearts.

Farther from the bar stood younger college kids in the ubiquitous Peruvian woolly hats with earflaps. They, as did most people, closed their eyes and mouthed along during the Lord’s Prayer. Behind them stood the chefs, out from the hotel kitchens in their whites and caps. Behind them, one or two ruddy-faced men in Stetsons. Off to one side were the cool guys with diamond-studded trilbys. “It is the first time I have felt involved in the political process,” Tyrone Kennard, a salesman, from Philadelphia, said. “I am proud and happy to be an American. If he fails, let him fail. I am happy just to see the day.” Mr Kennard then tried to sell me some T-shirts. “You want to take some back to London, England, I got some in my hotel, the JW Marriott on Pennsylvania Avenue. We can close the deal right now.”

Mrs Howell had driven from Chicago on Sunday. “Took 12 hours, got a busted tyre outside of Columbus, Ohio, got that fixed, slept in the car.” With her was her son, Justin, 20. “We came into town on the metro at 7am,” Justin said. “Maybe 3,000 people, nobody moving, and then one guy called out, ‘Yes we can’ and the whole subway station started to chant it and everybody started moving again.”

Most people chose to walk. A river of people surging towards the Mall, diverting around the checkpoints at the White House, buying their “I Was There” T-shirts and their funnel cake and hot chocolate from street vendors, having their picture taken with the cardboard Obama cutout outside a gift shop, moving on. The streets were full before dawn. People found their own way to pass the cold hours that followed. Some were wrapped up on the pavement and appeared to sleep. Some played Scrabble, others cards. One enormous man read a magazine calledMuscular Development, its cover urging readers to “Get huge! Jack up Now! Anabolics 2009”. Other groups, on a bank next to the iced-over pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial simply huddled together for warmth, groups of 10 or 12 youngsters stacked in a pile as if they had just finished a sub-zero game of Twister, friends discussing their next move in a tightening jobs market.

Mothers urged their children to keep their hats on, honey. Soldiers, ranged every few yards along the Mall, stamped their booted feet. The DC police, breath steaming through the slits in their ski masks, did the same. The grey plastic walkway laid over the grass was superfluous, the ground was frozen solid. Everywhere people talked on their mobiles, giving running commentaries to family who had not made the trip from St Louis or Sacramento, trying futilely to meet up with friends. “I’m on K and 17th! It’s backed right up, where are you?”

The crowd was sober. Sober as in not inebriated; sober, too, as in serious, purposeful. And it is those qualities that they like in Obama. “Barack and Michelle are cool people,” Mrs Howell said, “but they are respectful people. Michelle is younger than me but I consider her a role model, the way she carries herself, the way she is with her children and her husband, the way he is with her. They take a pride in themselves, they always dress appropriate.” Mrs Howell is concerned by colleagues who wear sneakers to work. She thinks the well-educated, well-spoken, family-oriented, churchgoing Obamas can stop the rot.

After the speech, there was an exodus from the bar, down towards the Mall to catch a glimpse of the motorcade. Ooohs and aaahs and riotous applause followed its progress to the White House. “McCain was right,” said someone behind me. “We’ve elected a rock star.” No, they have elected a President, and yesterday when he descended his presidential limousine to cover the last few blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue on foot, the screams of pleasure showed how delighted they are with their choice.
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