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Smithsonian Castle
Smithsonian Castle,
originally uploaded by skyring.

I ended my shift early last night, stocked up on hot dogs, sarsaparilla (another name for root beer, apparently) and Oreos, and staked out a position on the couch for the Obama inauguration. The Good Morning America coverage began with a shot of the Mall just as the first rays of the morning sun were lighting the tip of the Washington Monument, and already the space was crowded, with streams of people flowing in. By noon it was a solid mass of onlookers, all there to be a tiny part of history.

The GMA crew interviewed the spectators, asking, “Who has the most layers of clothing?” It was cold. Cold with windchill.

I’ve been there. I’ve walked through a bitter pre-dawn in Washington DC, and I’ve crunched across the Mall covered in fresh snow. That was exactly four years ago, the day after the second Bush inauguration, so I knew exactly how cold it was for the swelling crowd.

My wife and I had the city to ourselves then, and we spent a sparkling afternoon exploring the Smithsonians and marvelling at the wealth of art in the glittering halls of the National Art Gallery. But eventually the early twilight drove us outside, where we looked for a place to hail a cab. In the years following the 9/11 attacks, so many of the streets were lined with ugly cement barricades, but outside an impressive building on Constitution Avenue, there was a clear space. I set down my heavy tote bag with a sigh of relief and in a few moments a cab drew up beside us, just as I became nervously aware of the approach of a couple of uniformed security guards. Heavily armed security guards.

We hustled inside the cab and sped off.

“Crikey,” I said to the cabbie, a silver haired gent, “What’s the story there?”

“That the Department of Justice,” he replied. “They a bit antsy over Gitmo.”

Guantanamo Bay, where terrorist suspects were detained, had been the subject of some fairly high-level protesting in the weeks before our visit, so I guess that anybody carrying a bulky bag might arouse suspicions. After all, Washington itself had been attacked in 2001, and there were good reasons to be antsy.

The cab itself was an old model. Beautifully clean and tidy, but definitely showing the signs of a long life as a hack. I learnt later that the tax regime made it uneconomical to buy new vehicles, so cabs were operated until they fell apart, and this one didn’t have long to go.

We rattled through an intersection and I nudged my wife. “Look, the White House!”

“Yeah,” said the cabbie, “they got the wrong guy in there.”

We chatted the rest of the way to the hotel. He was interested in Australia, and we told him about the wildlife and the climate, stressing that we didn’t see much snow there. In fact it was summer right now, and we’d come straight from 30 degree heat to this snowy, subzero environment.

“Might move there,” he mused. “Might marry up one of them native girls, hey?”

We assured him that there was always room for taxidrivers in Australia, and gave him a small tip when he dropped us off at our hotel.

So when I saw Washington DC last night, looking frosty in the winter air, and joyous in the atmosphere of celebration, I remembered my own first fond impressions. Compared to Canberra, it’s a very different city, but there are similarities - the broad ceremonial avenues, the grand public institutions, the monuments and memorials. It’s a place where I can feel at home on the far side of the world.

“Aren’t you cold?” asked the television interviewer of one lovely old black woman, showing all her teeth in a fabulous smile.

“No, honey, I got my heart to keep me warm.”

There were a lot of happy hearts in Washington. A million strong, they thumped away and surged with excitement when Obama came out to take the oath. The sight of that sea of flags waving in a joyous tumult was unforgettable. I wish I was there, to share the excitement, to wave a flag, to feel the warmth of history and a glorious new dawn.

And somewhere, maybe in that crowd, maybe parked on a side street, listening on his cab radio, I am sure that there was one very happy cabdriver.
skyring: (Default)
originally uploaded by skyring.

Normally I'd take the line that the colour of a man's skin doesn't make him a better or a worse choice for a job. Your skin colour doesn't make you smarter, or more articulate, or a better leader or more courageous.

But in one respect, Barack Obama's racial background gives him an advantage.

No, it doesn't make him a better basketballer, though the smart money would be on him over John McCain or Hillary Cinton.

The advantage he holds is something that wouldn't have seemed that way at the time. He would have experienced the humiliation of racism. Not only at firsthand, but in the living history of some of the tens of thousands of Americans he would have met and spoken to in his political campaigns and career.

Lincoln might have formally abolished slavery, but for a century the ex-slaves and their descendants were legally second class citizens. Today the laws of racism and separation have gone, but as anybody who has spent time in the USA knows, there is a distinction that remains.

Those at the top are largely white. Those on the bottom are not. Anybody can see this, but for the first time, someone with a deep and real understanding of what this means is at the pinnacle of the nation.

Barack Obama is not going to initiate a century of revenge. Nor is he going to legislate for redress. But there will be a subtle shift in perception. Today the promise becomes fact. Today every single American schoolchild can look into a mirror and say to themself, "Yes, I can."

And the message goes out to the wider world.

We're increasingly aware that we all share a planet. Let us trust that Obama's messages of unity and community, of fairness and hope will be received with a deeper understanding. It's not about our tribe, our religion, our race, our nation.

It's about us.

And we've got a big job ahead.


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September 2010

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