My journey to the National Mall on inaugural day began many years ago. As a little black girl growing up in the South, I started to remember and vivid memories flooded my thoughts as I pulled on long johns, thermal socks, and three layers of clothing a little after 4:00 a.m. on that historical Tuesday, January 20, 2009.
As I fought sleepiness and tried to forget that the temperature was in single digits outside, my thoughts were filled with mental pictures of the past. Shortly, I would brave the cold to board a train for the District of Columbia, which was opened only to pedestrian traffic within a two-square-mile boundary surrounding the city.Mental pictures of so called separate but equal schools, where only "black" teachers and classmates attended and where books were second and third generation because they had been in "white" schools before they were passed on to us raced through my mind as frames in a long forgotten movie.
As I opened the front door to walk to the bus stop, I looked up at a silvery crescent moon in a dark blue sky, whose very essence radiated a sense that something very special was imminent. I was reminded of the segregated world I grew up in from my neighborhood, my church, to the buses where I was relegated to the colored section behind the back steps and door. I remembered the few seats for black riders and where we stood even though there were plenty of available seats in the "whites only" section of the bus. I remembered the day in high school, boarding a bus with a fair-skinned friend named Wayne. We paid our fare and as we walked to the back of the bus to sit in the "colored" section, the bus driver abruptly stopped the bus.He yelled out and ordered Wayne to the front of bus. Wayne, insisting that he was black, refused. As the incident escalated, we got off the bus, called my father who came immediately from our house from a short distance away to pick us up. A crowd had gathered which included a policeman. I witnessed my father being verbally abused by that policeman and almost taken to jail for trying to protect us. I remembered the gripping fear I felt in that moment and it far surpassed the blistering cold I now felt while climbing up the hill to the bus stop.
I looked down at my freezing hands enveloped in a pair of black leather gloves and remembered the dainty little white gloves my mother insisted that I wear as a proper little girl going downtown on Saturdays to see a movie in a segregated theatre where "blacks" sat in the balcony. Afterwards, I would go to Kress store and happily sit in the "colored" section where I sipped my chocolate malt.
When I reached the train, I noticed women boarding, making their way to destinations and remembered the women in my neighborhood that worked as domestics, owned the latest Cadillac automobiles but could not drive them to work because the white women they worked for would fire them if they knew their colored workers owned cars like that.
I boarded the train and as I sat there, I observed the faces, black, white, brown; nationalities from all over the world, most of whom were smiling, laughing, and chatting excitedly. The majority was headed to them all and in that moment I recalled earlier demonstrations I had participated in during the women’s movement for equal rights. I remembered struggling to answer questions posed by my feminist "white" sisters as to why there were not more black women participating in the demonstrations. I explained that it was not due to a lack of interest but the time of day the demonstrations were held. Most of them were working in their "white" sisters’ homes and attending to their children. I also remembered having to defend my "black" sisters at other times when they were not present at parent- teacher meetings that were scheduled in the middle of the day, and explaining that the only reason I was able to be there was because I worked for myself.
As I reached the first transfer point, I joined a mass of humanity, which moved in waves toward the turnstile. Putting the ticket in and moving towards the escalators in the metro station reminded me of the days I rode the rails with my father who worked for Southern Pacific Railway. During the summers when school recessed, I would ride on the Sunset Limited train between my hometown and Los Angeles. Even on the trains, because of the color of my skin, I had to sit in the colored section of the dining car and not sleep in a formal Pullman porter car even though my father and his friends who worked on the train saw to it that indeed I slept in one when available. I was very near the age of the little black girls who were putting on their lovely little dresses to participate in a ceremony with their father who would see that they too would sleep comfortably in a better world.
As I approached the mall, the moon was still in the darkened sky and I remembered the Civil Rights marches, King, Malcolm, Stoke, Angela, the Panthers. The helicopters overhead, 1.8 million people stretched from the capitol building built by the toil and labor of slaves to the Lincoln memorial. My mind went back to a township in South Africa called Kylisha. I had passed it on my way from the airport into downtown Capetown in 1994. I was there to witness another historical event, the election of Nelson Mandela as President of South Africa. Even though on African soil, I knew firsthand the arduous journey from apartheid to the oath for I had seen it through the eyes of a little black girl growing up in the U.S. I saw an elderly black woman being pushed in a wheelchair onto them all and that scene triggered the memory of a 110-year-old woman in Kylisha being pushed in a wheelchair to cast her vote for the first time in her life for Mandela.
And here I was at the crack of dawn, with millions of people standing together in freezing cold, the sound of screaming ambulances with red flashing lights; sharpshooters on buildings; young and old; black, white, and other. I saw a sea of expectant faces, their eyes trained on a building erected by slave labor to see Barack Hussein Obama, a child of Africa and of the U.S., take the oath of office as the 44th President of the United States of America.
I, that little black girl now looking through the eyes of an old woman, heard the whispers of that ancestor who survived the journey in chains from Africa to this sacred moment of NOW. That part of the African soul of the man who raised his hand to take that oath and that part of the African soul of that little black girl became ONE. Through a mutual eye, both the man and the little black girl, now a woman, saw that universal quilt made of many different colored threads, lengths, and stitches of which they are a part. Both of them secretly and quietly taking a vow to never forget this sacred moment and promised themselves, a nation, and the world they would continue on this journey to Wholeness.