Where were you at noon on Jan. 20, 2009? That may become one of the defining questions of a generation.
Did you go to Washington with 1.5 million others to see Barack Obama take the presidential oath of office? Or did you join tens of millions of Americans and millions of others around the world in watching the ceremony on television?
January 20 was perhaps the most joyous day in America since the end of World War II. Indeed, after eight years of George W. Bush, it felt like a siege had been lifted, like we could finally come out of our bunkers and our caves to greet one another in the sunshine. Did you ever see so many smiles, so many tears of joy? One and a half million people gathered in Washington and not a person was arrested! Think about that.
Around the world the reaction was much the same: joy and wonder at seeing this enormous republic of 300 million go through its celebration of democracy, seeing this superpower change leaders in broad daylight, with all due legal process. And there was another source of joy, I think. Was it the joy in seeing GWB ride into the sunset and out of our lives? Or was it the joy in seeing a charismatic, Harvard-educated black man standing in the shoes of Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Kennedy?
The fact is that the world wants America to succeed. It needs our leadership and our ideals, and when we fail to live up to our highest principles, as we have for the past eight years, the world becomes an ugly place for Americans abroad. As Garrison Keillor wrote after the election, suddenly it's cool to be an American again. We can hold our heads up when we walk through the airport in London or Rome. We don't have to pretend to be Canadians any more.
Yes, it was a grand civics lesson, for America and for the world. The inauguration ceremony was beamed into thousands of classrooms around the globe. I hope the kids were paying attention. And I hope their parents and leaders were, too. This is how it is supposed to be done. This is how adults are supposed to behave.
So what does the inauguration of Barack Obama mean to the little state of South Carolina, where so much of the outside world matters so little?
Some have said that the election of Obama heralds the beginning of post-racial politics in America. It's hard to believe that we have reached a post-racial age in South Carolina, a state whose history and culture have been so defined by race. A cursory look at our state reveals a race line drawn across it, bright and bold. Along that line lie disparities in housing, income, and education which will not go away because Barack Obama took an oath last week. Nor have we seen the last of demagogues and opportunists on both side of that line who will exploit it for base purposes.
Some have accused me of exploiting it, of writing too long and too often about this state's tragic racial history, about its current racial injustice. Some younger readers have written in to chastise me for what they call my "obsession" with race. Can't Moredock see that the world has changed? they ask. Can't he find something more relevant to write about?
I would be the last to deny that the world has changed since the days when I went to segregated schools and saw "Whites Only" signs everywhere in my little piedmont South Carolina town. There is no doubt that my consciousness was shaped by those memories and by the memories of civil rights marches and church bombings and lynchings and Martin Luther King Jr. standing before the Lincoln Memorial and saying "I have a dream."
But now that Barack Obama sleeps in the White House, does that mean I should stop writing about the "Corridor of Shame," that string of counties along I-95 with their black-majority populations and some of the worst public schools in the nation? Does that mean that I should not write about the Stono Rebellion on its 270th anniversary this September? How many people in Charleston know that the bloodiest slave uprising in American history occurred off Savannah Highway, just 15 miles south of the Coburg cow? How has that event and countless other acts of violence and intolerance shaped attitudes and institutions in our time? Are these legitimate questions to ask in the "post-racial" America of Barack Obama?
I am happy beyond words that we have a new president with a new vision for America. The challenge before him is enormous, and it will not be made easier by ignoring past tragedy or present injustice.