An Inaugural Air: The Slide from Obama to Trump
Jamal Mtshali’s Last in Line: An American Destiny Deferred (African American Images, 2016) examines U.S. public policy’s role in reproducing racial inequality in America’s justice, education, health care, and economic systems. With Donald Trump’s inauguration, these structures are certain to be reinforced. Although anchored in data and research, Last in Line also seizes narrative to underscore the magnitude of racial disparity in America and the prevalence of the biases which drive it. This excerpt details then-18-year-old Mtshali’s attendance at Barack Obama’s first inauguration and his pensive reflection on the implications of that moment. It contrasts starkly with the ominous air surrounding Trump’s inauguration, an unequivocal confirmation of the doubt which compelled his writing of Last in Line.
I exited a cozy station and made my way through joint-stiffening, glacial treatment uncharacteristic of Maryland’s temperance. I marched Washington’s streets in throngs reminiscent of Roman legions, warming my hands with circles of merriment, singing and dancing an unprecedented episode of American communion. Ours was a 21st century Great March, not comprised of Americans calling for freedom but Americans heralding the freedom’s arrival.
As I walked the streets and lawns of Capitol Hill, I thought of my ancestors and their bondage beneath Old Glory. President Lincoln’s first inauguration was their auspice, the sign of a future in which their chains would be cast off and melted into material with which a new, free America would be cast. Paralyzing chills came not from January’s pricks and pierces, but the vision that my ancestors may have regarded Abraham Lincoln the way I on this day regarded Barack Obama.
A silhouette rose from the east; rays shone amid the multitudes along the Western front. “Not in my lifetime.” I couldn’t help recalling the words I, born a score and seven years following Freedom Summer, often spoke with a tone of practical resignation. My ancestors’ words came into my hands a truism and dissipated in inaugural air a platitude. A hurried gust brushed my 18-year-old face, bypassing it to seize and escort the falsehood elsewhere. It was persona non grata in presence of the revered utterance, “God bless the United States of America.”
A chuckle froze. It turned me. “Man—racism is finished. It is dead.” He gazed for seconds, a heavy grin complementing eyes radiating limitless optimism. He turned toward the projector in injected stiffness, freeze frame belying motion picture. I tried to mirror his effervescent smirk, but found paralysis—a pensive discomfort unbefitting, perhaps even insulting of, this moment.
For the rest of the afternoon as the world celebrated Barack Obama’s ascent to the Oval Office, I mulled that stranger’s words. Friends and family, some who witnessed the height of the Civil Rights Movement, marveled at images of the president and first lady greeting the nation. I could not marvel, for I could not help chewing that late twentysomething’s verse. It seemed to fly in the face of the dispiriting elements of American scripture I had known. Like the Book of James Byrd. Its ink dried when I was seven years old. What was that—solitary confinement? An outlying emblem of hatred long since banished from America’s heart? Given the experiences of my family members, my friends—even myself—I was reluctant to accept his prophecy. It seemed unfulfilled—his belief that race was anywhere near the finish line. I heard praises of victory but no buzzer flatlining us from scorched Earth to Eden’s divinity.
I entertained that he was perhaps right. Perhaps I’d glorified myself in some malcontent archetype, covering my eyes and ears as strange, partisan fruit of petulance. This was not James Byrd’s day—this was Barack Obama’s day. Reformation was upon us. This was America’s dawn, the day which would heal the sufferings of the multitudes—every James Byrd. America rejoiced in a new Pontifex Maximus—a man with whom I shared not only blackness but first-generation African descent—yet all I could do was groan. America saluted a black president hoisted by a variegated will, entertaining an era free of the sit-ins, bus boycotts, and freedom rides that convened about an operating table excising cancers threatening our Constitution with a threadbare fate. Many died for our sins, nailed to fiery crosses, mocked by unholy masses, blood-sacrificed unto Sodom’s devils. They rose from the dead in schools, neighborhoods, and colleges convoked in Christ’s name. The day of reckoning portended in the prophecy of resurrection dawned. I blasphemed. My wanton thoughts were libel, spilling blood upon consecrated soil.
As I walked Washington’s streets on inauguration day, disparity accosted me. Its profile was black—and in the neighborhood of a palace where, because of the discriminate acquiescence of mortgage lenders, a black man and his family would soon reside. Middle-aged black men idling on porches, frozen by January, arrested me. Children held me captive; I recoiled at clones made in my image a foot, one hundred pounds, and ten years prior taking baby steps that, with socks, shoes, and bootstraps, would be giant leaps. Young men bearing resemblance to the then-me mean-mugged—their cruel contortions perhaps originating from some intoxicant peddled by a kingpin on a far-away planet. Perhaps not so far.
Truth frisked; I had no right to resist. “These people”—my people— were not stuff of inanimate will, feral sentiment, and Petri dishes. Laziness, violence, pathology—measurements of the dark visage America struck and neglected—stared not with concrete savagery, but a graveled, dispossessed affect. Where men of titles and tailors saw feral children, I saw human sorrow. That sorrow harked to a familiar face—one of hard work, humility, and hope. I looked into those eyes, dark as my own, and saw the sorrow I, as a child, once saw slip from the eyes of my grandfather, a man born and reared in rural Georgia. It was a sorrow somewhat assuaged by his migration to Buffalo, New York, an exodus affording him, his family, and many black Southerners of the Great Migration some semblance of spirit. But no dam could contain such falls. I wondered if, on this day, the souls of black folk would at last be free.
On this day, Americans autopsied sorrow. We tested its vital signs. We placed our frozen fingers over its face, feeling no fumes. We grasped steel; its caged, rocking ribbing ceased. We declared it deceased. On the day of this great coronation, we designated ourselves licensed coroners; our degree of qualification became apparent as we declared racism’s death after determining its proper resting place. We dared to dream. Dream we can. But the dream is cruel fantasy. In this dream, there is no justice ruling against minorities and on behalf of injustice. In this dream, there is no euthanasia failing black organs, harvested both from poverty’s casualties and Jack and Jill card-carriers. In this dream, there is no birthing room denying admission to two black infants for every one white failing to thrive. In this dream, there is no executive shredding African American opportunity, shouting black credentials to double doors ex officio. In this dream, none of these figments permeate into present. Wrapping embalms King’s body from substance seeping to spoil the slumber deferring America’s awakening.
I entered a cozy station. Frostbite yielded to a sweltering wave fostering equilibrium. Its sheltering did not consummate with bodily homeostasis, but with consumption of the sacrament it bore. Spirit’s nourishment conceived Last in Line; it is sacrament for a greater body. I believed then and believe now, at the end of his presidency, what all Americans knew on that day—that President Obama’s election is both a symbol of change and a representation of our country’s potential for greatness. Where I, along with many Americans, diverge is in the belief that his election is far from a sign that America has salvaged its damaged soul, crediting its constitutional “master promissory note.” American masses have certified Barack Obama’s election a sign of long-awaited heaven on Earth. In doing so, these denominations perpetuate the strangely pernicious idea that racism is no more—and that to speak otherwise is to assume the dark mantle of the victim. On January 20, 2009, while American congregations, young and old, black and white, rejoiced in a dream, spirit commanded me to desert.
Adapted from Jamal Mtshali’s Last in Line: An American Destiny Deferred, published by African American Images and available on Amazon. For more on the author, visit http://www.JamalMtshali.com. Follow Jamal on Twitter at @jtmtshali.