Barack Obama’s Inauguration - The Black British Voice on the realisation of the American Dream

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

By Rob Neil                         February 2009
A firsthand account by one of the millions who attended one of the greatest moments in history.

Three thousand mile jouney to be a part of history

copy_of_rob_neil_-_headshot.jpg'I stood 3000 miles from home, amongst a selection of friends and two million others, all there to witness a defining moment in history.  

Like the vast majority, if not everyone else, in that crowd, Barack Hussain Obama had won my heart with his honest smile, intelligent approach and hope-filled audacity. I had been a believer in collaborative politics long before I read Barack's second book [The Audacity of Hope], and so I felt I had to attend the inauguration of America's 44th President. I wanted to see this "change we can believe in" for myself: to taste, touch and embrace the essence of what American citizens had voted for and to add my own applause for that electorate. 

As I stood in Dulles Airport in Washington, surrounded by new found friends from every corner of the globe, the enormity of the occasion hugged my heart. I realised that those of us who made these long journeys to witness this event, would be carrying with us the hopes and dreams of not only our families, but also those of our respective nations.

Inauguration morning
On the morning of Tuesday 20th January 2009, I rose early and offered a simple prayer for the safety of the hundreds of thousands of people also setting out on this momentous journey. As we stepped out into the crisp morning, it felt as if we were walking towards history and into a brighter future.

inauguration_day__-_washington_metro.jpgIn many ways, this felt like a true step of faith; the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things unseen.

Our journey to the parade was via a wonderfully overflowing Washington Metro. We spoke to many people that day, trying to understand what it was like to be an American on this meaningful day. "Euphoric", seemed to sum up most, optimistic but realistic were the leading themes of those we spoke with.

Once we arrived it took 40 minutes to get onto the street and another two hours to find a place to watch the event. Even then we were about a mile back down the Mall, but it is the best we could have hoped for and we did have a perfect view of one of the big screens, which allowed so many people to be a part of the moment. We all agreed that just being there was the important thing.

Inauguration ceremony
As the time for the ceremony approached, the crowd grew and the sense of occasion grew with it. Successive former Presidents passed before us on the big screen, their reception ranging from polite applause to heartfelt cheers. copy_of_crowds_wait_for_president_obama.jpg

When Barack Obama's name was announced the entire Mall erupted in a cacophony of noise and flag waving.

Then hush, as he took the oath and then with Presidential grace, he delivered his inaugural speech.

Around us the crowd respectfully listened to the new President's first words as leader of the free world, punctuated by well timed yelps of agreement and verbal nods in favour of the declared policies and hope-filled intent.

At the end of President Obama's first words for his people there was rapturous applause.

Two hours after President Obama left the stage on the Capitol steps, my weary companions and I found a café with two empty seat about two miles away.

The American dream

As I sat and sipped my hot coffee, watching the crowds of people smiling as the slid through the cold winter's day, it brought to mind one of my earlier journeys into the head of liberty nearly 20 years previous and the inscription I read there on the Statue of Liberty [NYC]:' Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.'copy_of_barack_obama_mags_on_stand.jpg

I thought of the newspaper headlines and the exultant speeches proclaiming that this was the realisation of the dream. Not just the dream of Dr King and the civil rights movement, but the dreams of the founders America, a nation conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

I think there is still a long way to go before that dream is fully achieved, but as I watched the children of these tired and huddled masses traverse through the crowded streets - black, white, rich, poor, the old and the young - all buzzing with a sense of hope and achievement, it felt as though change had really come.

Back to Britain
On returning to Britain, I found myself repeatedly asking the same question: Can we?

Can we in the UK embrace this kind of change? Can we embrace this desire for something new? Can we find a place in our political system for hope and dreams? And can we make these hopes and dreams a part of our collective future?

Having stood in DC on that cold January day, and seen a people stand up and embrace that hope, democracy and that freedom, I join with them in cheering Yes We Can.

It is not the magnitude of this challenge that need worry us. It is our complicit nature and the danger of us continuing to buy shares in small politics. Narrow minds that too often end up fighting separately for what's left, instead of struggling together for what's right.

Our leaders, many of them elected to represent us in Parliament, need to collaborate and connect with those in our society who struggle. Those who struggle with hardship, who struggle with poverty, who struggle to achieve even the most basic levels of equality in their everyday lives, to do so with hope and with a mutual understanding that we are working together to create our future.

I believe we can change our politics. We can find a way of coming together around a common set of interests and concerns as British Citizens. We can assert our status in a progressive, innovative style which celebrates our omni-possibilities and, our growing contribution to the UK's economy and modern way of life. We can resist being defined by a narrow norm of Britishness. We can arrest our tendency to react to an ‘us and them' agenda.  Because We is the new me.

Perhaps what Barack Obama offers us,  is a vehicle for change. A mode of travel, which can take us from one paradigm to another.

We have this vehicle for change and the ignition has been turned on. Now is our time. This is our moment to climb on board that vehicle, work together and begin our manouvre. Our own journey in the UK started well before Tuesday 20th January 2009, but on this day hope-filled people all of the world gained momentum and our combined audacity declared a new set of aspirations.

About the writer: Rob Neil, is a civil servant, the first elected Chair of the Civil Service Race Equality Network and a national role model on the government's REACH role model programme.  

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