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Crossing the Hyphen: Obama’s Inauguration Allowed Us to Come Home

Nicholas Powers Feb 6, 2009

A friend and I dashed through empty streets to the Mall in Washington, D.C. Only three minutes were left before Barack Obama’s inauguration began. “Let’s not run,” I said. “Let’s pop in here get some coffee.” The warm store fogged my glasses and while wiping them I heard Obama. “I stand here today humbled…” Rhythmic, ascending Obama’s speech quieted the shop.

The cook, a tall work-weary man stared at the radio. More than listening, he was laying the weight of his life on this voice. Two women at the counter hummed “yes.” The cook did not blink, as if Obama’s words were a bridge over an abyss. The door rang as people came in. Cold air blew on our cheeks while the new visitors quieted and circled the radio. We were strangers but floated within his promise that “old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve.” Obama rose to his last peak. “We carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.” He ended and our shoulders lowered. I looked at the faces around me and saw hope and behind it love.

Through the night D.C. buzzed. Men in tuxes and women in flowing gowns paraded through the icy wind. On the bus home we laughed, yelled. One man strutted with a tshirt, “I Got My Country Back.” we were joyous because Obama’s victory ended a separation that was older than this election.

Many of us grew up in the era of identity politics. One could be African-American, Latino-America, Indian-American on and on but never simply American. Always the hyphen was there like a drawbridge we couldn’t cross. Stranded in-between our family’s origin and our own destinations, we looked at those safely inside and wanted to be shielded by the same walls. The criticism we aimed at America felt like it came not from solidarity with the suffering but resentment at being refused. We secretly wanted an end to identity politics because life on the hyphen means you cannot be on either side.

With Obama’s inauguration, we crossed that hyphen. We could because Obama siphoned our homesickness, long buried under rage and forged it into words that like a key opened door after door until he sat in the Oval Office. Now we are inside with him. Watching, hoping but hearing from the Left that we’re trapped in an ideological delusion that conceals the reality of a ruined world. It’s a classic Marxist critique. And while there are reasons to be suspicious of Obama’s politics, friends testify of deep transformation.

One told me she began writing songs after a long struggle with silence. My boss told me of a student who dropped out years ago, called on Inauguration Day to say he wanted to return and finish his degree. “Does Obama being sworn in have anything to do with it?” He asked. The student said, “It has everything to do with it.” More than anything else Obama gave our elders, who marched in the Civil Rights Movement, who protested in the ’60s, a gift in the last part of their lives. He made their sacrifices meaningful. Even if his policies stay moderate for that alone we are grateful.

The reason for this is an often missed fact that is more than symbolic. The White House was built by slaves. The United States was built by our parents and grandparents. They worked their whole lives for a nation their children were separated from by a hyphen. With Obama we claimed our inheritance. And this is why we love him. He allowed us to come home.

For more reflection on the inauguration, see Inauguration Frustration: Obama Speaks, Students Sleep.