Inauguration: an essay by Jerald Walker
My wife and I watched the presidential inauguration in bad company. Our two Tonkinese cats sat before the window entwined in a beam of sun, wholly disinterested in the promise of a post-racial world, while Brenda and I sat nearby on the couch, wholly transfixed. Like most other black Americans, we had wanted to attend the event in person; now I regretted that we had not gone.
Since my mother lives near DC, the run on hotels would not have affected us, but we were convinced to stay by other considerations, the main one being our young sons. Attempting to endure hours of frigid weather with a six- and eight-year-old would have reduced a festive occasion to a marathon of whines and complaints, to which I would have contributed my share.
We toyed with the idea of keeping the boys home from school. For weeks I had envisioned them on our laps, eating popcorn and Skittles as I put the inauguration in a meaningful yet delicate context. But pulling that off would have been difficult; I simply had no idea how to express the full weight of the event without offering specific reference to the misdeeds of our nation’s past. I do not even know how to talk to them about race. Until very recently I responded to their innocent inquiries about the varieties of skin color in purely biological terms; it was not until the morning after Obama’s election, in fact, that I attempted to add a social dimension.
At the time, Brenda was in the shower. The boys were in the kitchen, half-asleep and staring incomprehensively at their bowls of Frosted Mini-Wheats. When I walked into the room and told them Obama had won, they shifted their confused gazes to me. “Remember who that is?” I asked.
“The one with the high levels of melanin?” inquired Adrian, my oldest.
“Exactly,” I said. “Like us.”
I slowly lapped the island, pausing before them with my hands on the back of a chair. “Do you know what the election of Barak Obama means?”
They stared intently at me for a long while. Finally, with great seriousness, Dorian said, “That we can play Mario Kart today after school?”
I realized I was holding my breath. “Sure,” I said, exhaling. “Why not?” They cheered. I cheered, too, for the conversation had come to a merciful end.
Now, two months later, it was time for me to venture onto that minefield again. But not that morning. Instead of keeping them home from school, I decided it was best for them to experience the inauguration with kids their own age, the generation that, in their adulthood, would mark this occasion the way my generation marked the violent death of American leaders; the way my parents’ generation marked the violent death of American wealth.
I should not have thought of death at that moment. After doing so constantly since Obama emerged from the heartland as a legitimate contender and the object of would-be assassins, I felt I had earned the right, on that historic day, to be filled with only positive thoughts. Change for the country, I reasoned, could also mean change for me. I squeezed Brenda’s hand, which had been in mine off and on for the last hour. She squeezed back. We shared a quick smile before I placed my feet on the coffee table, burrowed deeper in the sofa, and gave in to this unfolding social experiment.
During the next ninety minutes we were treated to the wisdom of pundits, several musical performances, and a number of interviews with ecstatic members of the swelling crowd. At regular intervals fleets of school buses arrived, out of which tumbled children carrying hand-made Obama signs, and each time I was reminded of my sons. In a short while they would become racially conscious, made aware that the seemingly blank page of skin pigmentation was actually filled with script. I assumed their teachers would offer context for the inauguration as I would have, taking care not to have the black students feel singled out or unduly uncomfortable, sensitive to the fact that so few of them attended their private Boston-area school. And yet no matter how carefully delivered, words are still words, and I feared their impact. Class, before you watch the inauguration, there’s something you should know. Black people were brought to this land in chains because it was widely believed by whites that they were inferior. But President Lincoln knew all humans were equal, and that’s why, after two hundred and fifty years of captivity, he declared the slaves free. Context provided, the teachers would march their classes into the all-purpose room to watch the unforeseeable fruits of Lincoln’s decree. Maybe my sons would move just a step slower than the others. And maybe no one would notice. Not even Adrian and Dorian. But the seed of self-doubt would have been planted, and over time it would manifest itself as sullenness, a lack of desire to compete that appears so often in African American males, even those of privilege . . . or it would have no impact on them at all, serving simply as another example of man’s inhumanity to man that can be found the world over, through all of time. Context is everything.
Here is the context for me: I am forty-six, a college professor, the son of a teacher, the grandson of sharecroppers, the great grandson of slaves. The higher branches of my ancestral tree bear the weight of the lynched; the lower branches bear the weight of the embittered. Such was the landscape of the poor black communities in which I had been raised, where most of the adults I knew hated whites, believed racism was insurmountable, and felt obliged to offer their children this bleak worldview. The mere mention of the phrase “post-racial” was inconceivable. But then, the election of a black president was, too.
The inauguration had ended, and Brenda was back on campus, fulfilling her administrative duties. I did not teach on Tuesdays, so I remained at home, fulfilling my duties as dad. I had helped Dorian and Adrian with their homework, overseen piano practice, denied several requests to watch television, and joined them in a few games of Mario Kart. That was the easy part. In a few minutes I would walk upstairs to where they were playing in their room to discuss Obama’s presidency. This decision was motivated less by a desire to dispense knowledge than to receive it. I was anxious to know what their teachers had said to them and how, or if, they had responded.
Their faces had yielded nothing. Nor had their moods. Their school has a “drive-through” pick-up system, whereby parents and caretakers pull up near the entrance and children are escorted out to the idling cars. As Adrian and Dorian had approached mine two hours ago, I had studied their faces, looking for what?—I didn’t know—and yet hoping I would not find it. I did not. They were their typical public selves, quiet and reserved, until we had pulled away from the building, at which point they burst into animated conversation, as if duct tape had been suddenly ripped from their mouths. But the topics they covered did not include the inauguration, and I had not psyched myself up enough to mention it then.
As I climbed the stairs, I was reminded of my twin brother and I being thirteen and having our first serious talk with our father. We had been summoned to the living room, where we found him sitting on the edge of the couch, looking grave. “Boys,” he said, rising, “you’re old enough to start being with girls, but if you’re going to be out there tomcat’n, you’ll need these.” He held up a hand, in which were several sex education brochures. “When you’re ready for them,” he continued, “they’ll be on top of the refrigerator.” And then he left. This was not the model I intended to follow when it came time to broach the subject of sex with Dorian and Adrian. But at that moment, as I entered their room to broach the subject of race, I wished there was something that, right before leaving, I could hold up and say, Boys, you’re old enough to start being black, but if you’re going to be out there Negro’n, you’ll need these.
“Hi, Daddy,” they said in sync.
They were sitting on the floor, amidst a herd of stuffed animals. I joined them.
“Hi, boys. What are you doing?”
“Playing with our friends,” Dorian said. “You can play, too.” He handed me a giraffe as he explained the rules, which required the person holding the giraffe to be mugged. A full-scale wrestling match ensued, our favorite activity since they had learned to walk. They had tripled in size since then, but I had tripled my determination to remain fit for battle. I ran on the treadmill each day; I lifted weights five times a week; I counted my caloric intact the way a miser counts his money. And yet a mere ten minutes into the match I was winded.
Ignoring their protests, I called a time-out. Now the three of us lay on the floor, staring at the ceiling, as if at interesting cloud formations. It was interesting, I supposed, that the surface had dipped a full six inches in the center and that the middle seam was starting to peel—telltale signs that the plaster had loosened from the support beams. This had happened in the dinning room a year earlier, resulting in a $2,000 repair and a reiteration of my vow to never again buy a house described as “antique.”
“Are you ready?” asked Adrian.
“Not yet,” I replied.
“How much longer?” This from Dorian.
“Not much,” I said. “Soon.” I’d caught my breath, but I was stalling.
“Now?” Dorian asked a moment later.
“Almost,” I said. “First I want to talk to you about the inauguration. Did you see it at school today?”
“Yes,” they responded.
“What did you think?”
“It was good,” offered Adrian.
“It was long,” Dorian noted.
We were quiet for a second. “Did your teachers explain why it was so important?”
“Because Barack Obama is the first black president,” Adrian said.
I turned toward him. “And?”
“Is that all she said?”
I faced Dorian. “Did your teacher tell you that too?”
He shook his head. “Can we wrestle now?”
“In a moment.” I sat my giraffe on the floor. Then I looked back at the ceiling and spoke about slavery, offering a broad overview of what I knew they would soon cover in school. When I finished, I watched Adrian as he picked up one of the stuffed animals, a large penguin, and waddled it across the air. Dorian was galloping a pony on his belly. They did not seem particularly interested in what I had said, but, like my father’s sex education brochures, the information had been made available for future use. And that was why I gave them this, too: “To go from slavery to the presidency means that blacks are remarkable people, capable of achieving anything.”
“Like becoming an artist,” Dorian stated matter-of-factly.
“Of course, if that’s what you want.”
Dorian nodded. Adrian said, “Me too. Dorian and I are going to be artists together. We’ll have our own studio.”
“And,” Dorian added, “it’ll be painted red and blue. Red is my favorite color. Blue is Adrian’s.”
Faced with the decision to reel the conversation back in or let it float away, I chose the latter. I imagined it as a helium-filled balloon, pushing through the failing seam of our ceiling-cloud and into the stratosphere. And that, it occurred to me, was as it should be.
I reached for the giraffe. The boys instantly pounced on me—so, too, did a sense of optimism similar to what I had felt at the conclusion of Obama’s speech. It had been characteristically upbeat, designed to appeal to our better nature, including the nature, it seemed, of the Tonkinese. Both cats had joined us by then, one on each lap, their bellies offered up for gentle strokes. We obliged, and soon their purrs mingled with the cheers of the crowd and Brenda’s sniffles.
Jerald Walker is the author of Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption, recipient of the 2011 PEN New England/L.L. Winship Award for Nonfiction. His essays have appeared in publications such as The Harvard Review; Mother Jones; The Iowa Review; The Missouri Review; The Oxford American; and Creative Nonfiction, as well as four times in The Best American Essays. His memoir about being raised in a doomsday cult will be published next year.