As inspiring as our new president’s inaugural address was, both to a nation shaken by the shattering of economic institutions and to a world anguished by suffering intentionally inflicted upon humans by other humans, Barack Obama’s eloquent words were merely the day’s second most meaningful message.
The most powerful message was the wordless image that flashed around the planet and onto television, computer and cell phone screens at 12:06 (Eastern) Tuesday afternoon in Washington, DC: A slim, trim 47-year-old man, right hand raised, left hand upon Abraham Lincoln’s Bible, becoming the nation’s 44th president.
The small screen image spoke a big picture truth about each one of us and the sum of us: The United States is now a nation where a child born to a dark-skinned father from Africa and a Caucasian mother from Midwest America can be president.
To understand its full impact, we need to see the moment through the wide and shining eyes of another child who was born of an African father and a Caucasian mother from Midwest America.
Meet Alessandra, a bright and remarkable six-year-old daughter of parents who live right here in Washington, DC. Alessandra’s parents are professionals who did all the right things to surround her with positive and inclusive values — private school, caring teachers, and multicultural friends. They took her to Africa, so she could see the roots of her father, a respected economist there and here.
Yet last February, on the night before the District of Colombia primary election, there occurred a wrenching reminder that even in this remarkable political year in America, unseen vestiges of the worst of our past apparently still lurk. It happened when Alessandra’s mother promised her daughter that tomorrow they would go to the local precinct so Alessandra could watch her vote.
Alessandra burst into tears and said: "Mommy, I wish I were white so that I could vote too." Alessandra’s words still reverberate painfully within her mother’s head and heart; perhaps they always will.
Alessandra’s parents still have no idea how their daughter absorbed such a notion – seemingly based on a belief that in America white people hold a position of entitlement and superiority. Was it something said by a classmate? Or just something absorbed by this observant little girl who sees everything and misses nothing? Calmly (hopefully not signaling she was churning inside), Alessandra’s mother explained that tomorrow Americans of all colors will be voting. That the only reason Alessandra cannot vote is that only grownups can vote; and when she is a grownup, she too will vote.
Also, that the only reason her Daddy wouldn’t be voting was that he is not yet a U.S. citizen — so he can vote in Africa, and her mother can’t vote there. But Alessandra clung to the notion: only whites could vote in America. Then mother and daughter talked about how Obama, just like Alessandra, had an African father and an American mother. Her mother asked: "Is it that you would like to have a president who looks like you?" Alessandra nodded yes. The next day, in the voting booth, Alessandra got to press the button for Obama.
Fast-forward to November. On Election night, when the TV newscaster announced Obama was elected president, Alessandra, still awake, jumped up and down, clapped, cheered and laughed. On the television screen, Jesse Jackson was crying.
Fast-forward to Inauguration Day. Alessandra went to a children’s inauguration party and while many children sat on the floor in front of the TV, she chose to watch the events sitting on her mother’s lap, holding her father’s hand. Alessandra watched and listened intently, silently.
Then came the moment: Obama had taken the oath of office. The cameras panned to the millions of people packing the mall from the Capitol to the Washington Monument, celebrating, cheering, crying and laughing.
Alessandra turned to her mother, the world’s biggest smile on her face, and whispered just one word: "Wow!"
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)