A friend joked to me, prior to the inauguration, that I was on the "Obama Trail." I have traveled to Hawaii, Chicago, New York and Washington DC in the last month. I went to college in Kansas and on Jan. 11 will depart for Indonesia on the final leg of my travels (for rest and rejuvenation). It's a simple coincidence. However, upon considering my travels in that light, I gained a new perspective. In Hawaii, I observed firsthand that President Obama is indeed a product of his environment, laid back, cool and passionate. In Chicago, my friend, a fellow Portlander, lives on the same street as the Obamas. As we drove through their Hyde Park neighborhood, she said "Don't you just love that our President lives just a few blocks from Section 8 Housing?" "Yes!", I replied. This man is real! There have been, I believe, identifiable pieces of him in each of the places he is from. Only one who has lived in such a range of locales could embody the acceptance and vision for America that President Obama has.
Arriving in the nation's capitol for the January 20 inauguration, like many people, I knew not what to expect. We have all seen images of the March on Washington, The Million Man March and other momentous occasions that have taken place in our nation's capitol but it was hard to know for certain what we were in for with the cold temperatures and record -sized crowd. Also like many, it had been a long time since I had pledged allegiance to the flag or sung any patriotic song with a sense of pride or ownership. I am so grateful that I have been changed!
I headed to the inauguration with my mother, Joy Ruplinger, who is White and lives in Portland. I, like our President, share the complex yet simple existence of a being a "black on" bi-racial person. I was excited to be attending with my mother, but also wanted to be "with my people." I am comfortable in my bi-racial skin, but also possess what I consider a healthy awareness of race. I wondered if being there with her would make for a different experience than being in the company of my peers, many of whom were attending as well. This wonder was less about the age gap and more about finding my place in this crowd.
What I was pleasantly surprised to find is that the inauguration was the one of the few times in my life that I felt race simply did not matter. It's not that race doesn't matter, it does, we still have a long way to go to heal and transform race relations, but as we walked the national mall the eve before the big event, and the morning of, I was moved by the spirit of oneness, the fact that though our personal identities may have played a role in why we came, more accurately, we were there to celebrate and embrace hope, change and one another. As the millions of us gathered and took in the ceremony and President Obama's words, all I felt was connected to everyone and everything in my midst. The crowd and the temperature were mere afterthoughts in contrast to the sense of relief and joy that we Americans were for a change, a beacon of light, an example of the best of what this country has to offer.
There was a sticky nametag being passed out that said something to the effect of "one conversation can change everything." To me, it captured the essence of the event. I have never had so many genuine conversations with so many strangers from all walks of life. As much as I, like most, would like to believe I am free of biases, I am not, and this experience reminded me of that. I found myself moved and surprised one time after another as I chatted with people about why they came, where they came from, and who they were with. I met single moms with a brood of kids, wealthy entertainers, elderly people of many races, and saw countless cowboys. A friend of mine later recounted that he stood in the crowd next to a person with a "Rednecks For Obama" sign. WE were ALL there!
Adding to the colorful crowd representative of an ever growing and changing United States of America, was an overwhelming sense of goodwill. It is a well-known fact that there were no arrests made in Washington DC on that day, a city with a crime-ridden reputation. One had to be there to understand how that could have happened. President Obama, his family and this movement for change have, I believe, inspired people toward goodwill. I shared a cab with a stranger who refused to let me pay for my part. When an elderly or wheelchair-bound person was present, the crowds parted. When stuck in a mass of people, there was patience and respect. I wish I could find a more eloquent way to express what still moves me to tears when I think about this historic occasion, but the best I can come up with is the word, responsibility.
President Obama has asked us to all be a part of change. After chatting with an Afghani cab driver the morning of the inauguration, who was so proud, witnessing my mother's unfettered joy and being on the receiving end of much hospitality and goodwill, all I can come up with is that I, we all, have a responsibility to transfer the spirit of that day into our daily lives and communities. This can be done through service or activism, but sometimes in the muck and mire of the day, those endeavors can seem daunting. The single thing I saw most while in Washington is how easy and meaningful it is to share a smile. It speaks every language and can open even the most sealed of doors. If I've done nothing else each day since I returned, I have done that. I continue to be moved by how disarming and engaging it is each time I do it and despite the economic and social challenges that we face as a nation and as individuals, we really do have much to smile about. Any person who attendance the inauguration can affirm this fact. We acted for change, and this time it worked! The possibilities are endless….
Rosanna White is a 32-year-old Portland native who teaches English at an alternative high school in Los Angeles.