In Her Words
God of Our Weary Years
Betty Exclusive: The President of Bennett College for Women shares her joy in the day
-Dr. Julianne Malveaux
A black man could not be served lunch in Washington 60 years ago, Barack Obama said. Today, his son is President. Controlled, concerned, celebratory and cerebral, the 44th President of the United States honored our history and girded up for our future, promising international cooperation in visual metaphor, “we will reach out our hand if you unclench your fist.” Wow!
This inauguration day has been an amazing day for me; I rose thinking that I might just have a front row seat – a seat in front of my television. Why? It is cold. I’m battling laryngitis. I got in at 2 in the morning, banging between blocked streets and tour busses, the 15 minute ride from the District line turning into a nearly 2 hour sojourn. After a few hours sleep, the folk in my house were saying we had to leave if we wanted to get good seats. Front row in front of the television sounded good. For five minutes. Then I thought that a front row to history sounded better. I had an actual seat. A place to sit. And my family had seats inside the perimeter. And so we got up and soldiered into the cold (which really wasn’t awful) and the marvel of the inauguration of our 44th president.
There were moments that captured the soul. The San Francisco Boys and Girls Choir was wonderful! Senator Dianne Feinstein made me smile as mistress of ceremonies, as I recalled her days as Mayor of San Francisco. I cheered when Dr. Dorothy Irene Height, President Emeritus of the National Council of Negro Women, was wheeled onto the stage. I was excited as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi came forward. But Michelle, Michelle, Michelle. Wasn’t she looking great! The entire family was “representing”. I still haven’t wiped the smile off my face.
Part of the joy of the moment was the crowd. I sat next to an Alabama State legislator, Merika Coleman, who became my “inauguration buddy”. On our row were two sisters, African American siblings from Washington D.C., who were doing the day together. Our talk flowed back and forth about the meaning of the day, our energy, our hopes and dreams and this new Obama era. An older couple, clearly progressive, sat behind me. They grunted when George W. Bush was mentioned and gently reminded me that, after the inauguration speech the ceremony was not yet over. Conversation ebbed and flowed like babbling brook water. There was a community that had come to witness history.
President Barack Obama’s speech was an amazing articulation of where our country has been, where it is going, and what we must do to regain our greatness. He spoke of workers, of education, of markets. He provoked, he challenged, and he offered to embrace. I don’t know how many times I sighed, clapped, stood, or wrote down a word or a phrase. I know when our new president finished I felt full.
While Elizabeth Alexander, our inaugural poet, borrowed liberally from Maya Angelou when she spoke of language and communication, she also blazed her own ground in speaking of workers and language. She spoke of spoons beating on kettles, of breakfast being prepared, of hands working and serving, and her speaking was rich and powerful. This is a poet we will want to hear more from. This is a poet whose voice speaks to both lofty themes and working people.
Dr. Maya Angelou has a term she uses to describe the best of the best. For some black folk it is “high cotton” (stomping in high cotton means you are hanging with the best of the best), but for Dr. Maya it is caramel cake. The phrase comes from a story she tells about the day her grandmother made her a caramel cake after a series of tribulations with a teacher rattled her. Caramel cake is just the greatest, bestest (that means better than best and it is willfully ungrammatical) thing that could ever happen at a moment. And after President Obama’s speech and Elizabeth Alexander’s poem, count on the Rev. Joseph Lowery, a contemporary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s to bring the caramel cake to an already rich table. Lowery began his benediction by reciting the last verse of the Negro National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” God of our weary years, god of our silent tears, thou who has brought us thus far on the way. He continued with his prayer by asking blessings for the Obama family. And he ended be resurrecting a ditty that once hurtful, may now be empowering. He prayed that black would not have to get back, that yellow would be mellow, and that white would embrace that which is right. Rev. Joe Lowery “brought it” – the joy, the hopes, the dreams and the concerns of many in black America who, while celebrating Obama, do not want their special concerns to be ignored.
We have come this far by faith. Is President Barack Obama the manifestation of Dr. King’s dream? He is at least a step in the right direction. Let’s not forget, though, that Dr. King was interested in economic justice and in eradicating poverty. As Senator Feinstein said, this is a generational turning point. We have come this far by faith, serving the god of our weary years. May the years be joyful now! It is a new day.
Dr. Julianne Malveaux is President of Bennett College for Women and one of BettyConfidential.com’s esteemed advisory board members. Recognized for her progressive and insightful observations, she is also an economist, author and commentator, and has been described by Dr. Cornel West as “the most iconoclastic public intellectual in the country.”