I remember the day Obama was inaugurated. I was 25 years old and working lunch shifts as a waitress and bartender at a chain restaurant in Michigan. I worked lunch shifts almost everyday because I went to AA meetings almost every night. I was 5 months sober and very newly conscious that there was a whole world going on around me.
Months before I had waited in line at an elementary school with my mom to cast a vote for the very first time. Being newly sober, I had quite a limited understanding of my emotions. Mostly, I just felt awkward and uncomfortable in my own skin. I was excited though when I thought that I might have a part in electing the first Black President — a man that I respected, a man that I had had the honor of meeting when he was a Senator in Illinois.
Since I barely had any idea who I was at the time, I had little to no awareness of what my politics were. There was not much space for complex thought. I followed simple directions and just tried to get back to my pillow every night without a drink— admittedly a bit unlearned of this new practice of falling asleep, rather than passing out unconscious. My brain could not pick apart domestic or global issues. But, as I listened to Mr. Obama along the campaign trail, I felt certain that he was a man who was trying to do the next right thing.
When I look back now I can see how unprepared I was for inauguration day. I probably should have taken the day off. Hell, if I was the person I am now, I would have taken off to Washington to witness it all in person. Instead I was manning the apathetic Tuesday lunch crowd at a Mongolian Barbecue. I concluded their indifference from their choice of locale during such a historic event.
As Senator Obama raised his right hand to take the oath of office, I stopped, tray full of drinks in hand, and perched myself in front of the TVs at the bar. At first I tried to hold back my tears. While most of the patrons in the restaurant and a few of the servers were also watching, they remained busy, chatty, and simultaneously preoccupied with other things. While they recognized that this was a special day, their plan seemed to be to pause briefly in recognition and then get back to business as usual.
But this was not business as usual. Right there, fully alive and aware in that present moment, I began to sob. I could not control myself. You see because I was sure that if my siblings or I ever had children — they would not ever see a black president. But there I was, seeing him sworn in. And there my Dad was — a 66 year old black man who grew up haunted by the image of Emmett Till. And there my grandma was, the daughter of sharecroppers, now in her eighties. We were all seeing it. We were all alive to witness what we thought was impossible.
I was quite neglectful as a waitress that day. The ice was melted by the time anyone got their drinks and my boss had to bring my tables their doggy bags. As the inauguration winded down the restaurant was close to empty. I went around to bus my tables and collect all my checks. One table left me $10 on their $24 bill. Another $5 on $15. Out of the 6 or 7 tables I had, not one left me less than 25%. My face, stiff with dried tears, cracked into a smile. I laughed out loud. “Reparations!” I yelled as I waved the money in the air, a bit sad that there was not another Negro in the restaurant I could share the moment with.
Although I’ve stayed sober for all 8 years of Obama’s presidency, I cannot say I was woke for all of it. The first 4 years I was wrapped up in my personal life — moving, starting a career, falling in love. I naively assumed that with Obama at the helm, all must be moving in the right direction. I’d glance at CNN headlines as they came across the screen and I’d pick up a left behind newspaper on the subway and give it a once-over, but I wasn’t overly invested in my political consciousness. I felt no personal responsibility for the larger things that were happening in the world. As long as I was being a good person, I felt like I was doing my part.
Then, about 4 years ago, I started working a desk job. Public radio became my constant companion, I listened to it for no less than 10 hours a day. At this same time I started making a little more money than I needed, so I started traveling more as well. My exploits have brought me to one basic conclusion: The world is scary, fucked up, and, absolutely amazing.
I’ve found that being awake to the world is often frightening, exhausting, and even maddening. When I listen to stories like Kalief Browder’s or read articles about voter suppression in North Carolina, my mind and body connect in an almost paralyzing panic. James Baldwin said: “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all of the time.” I’ve yet to find the words that greater embody my experience the past few years.
And then… Donald Trump. I don’t have to expound upon my feelings about the man who is becoming our president today. I don’t have to detail every particular mental and physical stress this incoming administration has put on my body. Although I will share one. Right before Christmas, I had severe pain in a tooth and had to schedule an emergency visit to my dentist. I thought it was strange that I could have a cavity that could hurt that much when I had had clean x-rays just two months before. Turns out I was right, it wasn’t a cavity. Clenching and grinding had caused a chip in my tooth and my gums were severely inflamed from food that was getting caught in a place that I couldn’t reach or see. I told my dentist that I had never had a problem with clenching or grinding my teeth before. She half smiled and shrugged and told me she had seen this problem quadruple in her patients over the past year. “It has been a stressful year,” she reminded me, and then offered a few solutions she hoped might help.
So I know I don’t have to explain my anxieties to you, my fellow clenchers and grinders. I’ll also not condemn those of you who voted for Trump. That stage of this process — the grieving process, is done. Today, we move forward, even with the knowledge that we have now been saddled with a new administration who is heavily weighted to try to drag us back. Now is the time we must strengthen our resolve. We cannot allow our dread and anxiety to coax us into disconnecting; we must remain upright and engaged. We must remain woke.
My best friend sent me a text the other day conveying her deep sadness over the Obamas leaving the White House. I’d been feeling the same sorrow for a few weeks and discussed it a bit over dinner last night with my husband. I told him I would feel the same sense of loss if Hillary was being inaugurated. I can honestly say that I look up to the Obamas. Both Barack and Michelle have been and will remain role models for me, as I am sure they will for countless others. I got sober at the end of 2008 when I was 25 years old after hitting a pretty solid bottom. I was a child of sorts, simultaneously terrified and excited, daring to have hope. For the next 8 intensely formative years of my adult life, there was a strong, brilliant, loving, and honest couple occupying the White House. When policies were changed, or tragedy struck, I was anxious to hear from them. I actually looked to the leaders of our country for guidance and comfort, and I got it. I guess part of my sorrow is in their exit, the other is in the realization that having a first couple we can really look up to is such an anomaly.
I will not be looking up to this new administration. I will be looking around them, and behind them, and anywhere else they think they can hide. I will remain engaged and aware and active. Just this past Sunday I met with other members of my community in Brooklyn to discuss and plan actionable steps we can start to take on a local level. Groups like this are meeting all over the country (I found mine through moveon.org). We are mobilizing. We are coming together and we stand ready to protect and defend those most vulnerable to the discriminating policies and divisive forces that fear has instilled in our governing bodies. And, most importantly, we are gathering to ensure the protection of our democracy. We must protect our freedom of speech. We must protect our right to a free press. We are terrifyingly taking these things for granted. We must understand: If we let these things fall, our democracy will fail. If our democracy fails, WE WILL FALL.
I’ve gone back and read Obama’s farewell speech more than once. I will continue to whenever I need to be inspired. Just one of the moments his words made my heart beat fast was this:
It falls to each of us to be those those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy; to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours. Because for all our outward differences, we, in fact, all share the same proud title, the most important office in a democracy: Citizen.
So I guess, along with our new president, I am taking an oath today as well. For the next 4 years I pledge to remain vigilant in the protection of our democracy. I vow to not seek partisan opinions, but facts — to only spread truth, and not rhetoric. I promise to listen to other people who don’t look or live or think like me, with the understanding that it is possible and even probable that they love and fear just as I do. I commit to employing my rights as a citizen of this country to protest and voice my dissent, knowing that if I fail to exercise these rights, I face the grave possibility of losing them. I swear to utilize my voice and my pen to engage our leaders and lawmakers and to hold them accountable to their constituencies — to we, the people.
Thank you, President Obama, for being the leader as I began my trudge on the road of self-discovery. I had no idea when I started this journey that I would emerge an aspiring patriot. My love for this country is fierce, and I stand prepared to vigorously defend it from any enemy or detractor, whether that opposition originates from inside our borders or out. Like you, Mr. President, I know my successes will vary and my methods will be subject to criticism — but I vow that my intentions will always remain sober, true, and in effort to uphold our beloved democracy.