I will forever remember Aretha Franklin hitting it home at the 56th Inaugural of the 44th President of the United States, Barak Hussein Obama, as she paradoxically belted out, ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee’ to the tune of ‘God Save The Queen.’ “Land where my fathers died…” symbolized so very much for so many. Our Queen (Mum) of Soul went on to wail, on and on, over every corner of the world, “Let Freedom Ring.” Eloquently, she set the stage for a future of ‘Change’ in the good ole US of A.
I was one of thirty-eight Canadians who hopped onto the ObamaMania Bus, in the wee hours of Saturday January 17th, to journey twelve anxious hours to Washington to live this moment live. Ranging from ages 12 to 70, diverse belief systems and heritage — Black, Asian, South Asian, Middle Eastern, European and American expatriate, we placed our lives in the hands of a recalcitrant driver we had chartered for the ride. Dream-filled and determined however, we overcame, on this the most cathartic trek of our privileged lives. The seniors onboard recanted times when this would have been dismissed as audacious and unreal. Some of the youth among us who had previously been considered at risk looked now to be inspired, while the professionals claimed respite from busy schedules to honor what our joint struggle had come to realize. Renowned photographer, Michael Chambers and insightful documentary filmmaker, Marta Neilsen, focused their lenses to capture the emotions, the euphoria and beats, as each and every voice lifted and sung with glee, “…to Thee.”
On Sunday, many rose for 8:00 a.m. worship at the Washington National Cathedral. And were thrilled to learn that ironically, the ornately sculpted pulpit within this gorgeous architectural cavern was the site of Martin Luther King’s final sermon. Shivers immediately shot up my spine as I visualized him there, so many years before this manifest of his visionary Dream.
Later, we collected others and merged with half a million more for the free ‘We Are One’ concert at the symbolic Lincoln Memorial. This two-hour outdoor love fest pumped rhythm into our souls, warmed us with ‘One Love’ and revved up us to ‘Shout,’ foot-stomping country style. Pausing ‘In the Name of Love,’ Bono reminded us that “This is not just an American dream, but also an Irish dream, a European dream, an African dream…an Israeli dream and a Palestinian dream.” And an elegant Beyonce ushered us into the future with an all star ‘America the Beautiful’ grande finalé. The ObamaMania was sweeping, love and goodwill palpable, inescapable but the brotherhood did not end there. On our way home, chilled to the bones, buoyed up and full of pride, we were gifted with two free bus rides, as none had the requisite exact fare of $1.35. On the second, in thanks, we offered up our own command performance of ‘O Canada’ and everyone cheered. Back in the warmth of our hotel, we giddily relived the day’s adventure for we had become one family, not only with our fellow Canadians but also with all of whom we had and had not yet met.
Monday the 19th, Martin Luther King Day, a day of service, many of us wiled it away in newly formed bonds, revisiting history and imagining the future at admission-free Smithsonian galleries and museums. Some scoured the scores of Obama-endorsed, makeshift souvenir stands searching for memorabilia to bring back home the love. Much of it was garish and repetitive as if one supplier had cornered the mass market. Still though, enough was unique, crafted carefully with hope and pride. Free enterprise, like cobblestones, paved Washington sidewalks while the consuming crowds, a ravenous waking giant, gobbled it all up expanding and redoubling itself as day set into night. We all took pause to dream of what we would do, once home, to aid our own in need.
Inaugural Day, January 21st, up at 3:00 a.m., many of us excitedly layered on our warmth, bagged our lunches, donned our Canadiana and braved the cold to board our Canada Coach at 4:00. Due to strict security precautions, our surly driver deposited us some distance from Washington’s National Mall and catapulted us into our greatest challenge yet. Cold and driven, we emerged from Union Station only to fall in behind thousands more. But the bitingly cold dawn could not diminish our euphoria for this was to be the day the world would truly transform. We hoisted our Maple Leaves and trooped on like soldiers as hoards of passersby warmed us with heartfelt cheers, “Yeah Canada!” People streamed in endlessly and the crowds swelled rapidly. Gridlock stared us all in the face. “The gates will open at 8:00 am.” “We had previously been told 5:00.” As daylight peeked and the dark night sky faded slowly into blue, our once eager faces were to freezing into place and our spirits dared threaten to wane. We became desperate, sought out aid and found a large and forceful officer guarding a discrete gate. After engaging with him in a fiery exchange, we managed to convince his calm partner that all of us had been invited to a reception at the Canadian Embassy only steps away. Eventually and miraculously, we were nodded through, “Canadian! Canadian! Canadian!…” And all fourteen were in! Then instantly like a mirage, our oasis was in sight, rows of red and white flags fluttering proudly aloft the Embassy in the brisk morning haze. We jumped joyously for our freedom, the officer’s kinship, and visions of warm Canadian smiles. Out fearless leader, Patricia Scarlett of Scarlett Media, championed selflessly to admit everyone, but in the end, only those key to the documentary would be allowed through our own unwelcoming gates. I dared to enquire of the icy woman who tried to wall us all out, “Are you Canadian?” But was in no way surprised at her defensive “I am” in retort. We resigned to concede the fight for sadly it was one of our own that had forced us to break up and buck up to brave the rest of the day. At 11:55 am, at the first sparkle of sunlight, the first Black leader of the United States was officially sworn in with the Oath. The salute of twenty-one guns and torrents of impassioned, tear-filled, cheers ensued. Each boom seemed more amplified in profound underscore to the magnificence of the time.
A tall skinny Black man with large ears, a funny name, and no family connections to Washington’s power elite, had dared to dream of becoming the leader of the most powerful nation on earth. Many had tried to dissuade him but he held fast to his vision. Now, 6 months into his presidency, popularity in the balance, he continues to champion on, to revive the economy, improve healthcare and increase opportunities for all through education. These would normally be daunting tasks for faint of heart. And many continue to wince that he’s taking on too far much. But Barack Obama has already proved his backbone, dare and mettle in becoming President. I look forward to January 2012, when we can all cheer again in triumph, well-done and welcome back.
– Len D. Henry