Another Hard Day For The Cynics

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"Our parents grew up in the Jim Crow south, where they couldn’t eat at restaurants because they were black," said Josyln, her two girlfriends nodding emphatically. "When we were growing up, they told us we could be anything, but we were always like, ‘yeah, right’. We could be a CEO, a basketballer, a football player, but president? No way. Now I can tell my kids that they can be anything, and I can prove it."

Sitting in a corner booth across the room was Alyssa, who had just returned from a weekend of celebrations in Washington DC. "I teach 9th grade at a school with 75 per cent black and 25 per cent Latino kids," she said, leaning over the leopard-print tablecloth and her happy-hour bottle of Bud. "Today one of my students made a speech, and said, ‘Now we have no excuse to be anything but our best’."

Here in New York City, whether you’re in Brooklyn, Harlem or Lower Manhattan, it’s unmistakable that while election day was for all of America, today’s inauguration has resonated most powerfully with the black community. "The day after the election I had to check my Blackberry to make sure it was still real," said Joslyn, tears running down her cheeks. "Now he’s sworn in, nobody can take it away from him."

Yesterday, at the Martin Luther King tribute at Brooklyn’s Academy of Music, vice-president of Target, Derek Jenkins, told a full house that he was astonished that his 84-year-old father had lived to see a black man elected president. Returning wounded to Washington DC from World War II, he had been forced to eat in separate quarters, while German POWs were welcomed into the whites-only mess hall. Jenkins was more startled, however, when his 29-year-old daughter told him that she hadn’t expected to see a black president in her lifetime.

Of course, at the end of an election cycle in which generalisations flowed like wine, it’s hard to say this day means more to one group than another without being contradicted within a matter of minutes. "Yeah, it’s true that black people have probably had a more gut-wrenching emotional response today, but Obama’s inauguration is cause for celebration for all minorities," architect Dong-Ping Wong told us. "It’s not just f*ck you, George Bush, it’s f*ck you to the whole white domination of American history."

While Obama may turn a new page, it’s clear that the American record is stained with shameful acts that can never be redeemed. At a comedy gala farewelling George Bush last night, after getting some easy laughs with a few Bushisms, Ugly Betty‘s Michael Urie appeared as Grandpa Cheney. With slippers, pipe and shotgun propped against his chair, he read the crowd a bedtime story called "Goodnight George Bush".

"Goodnight privacy, goodnight to WMDs, goodnight to the towers, goodnight Abu Ghraib." The audience shifted in their seats. "That’s a hard one, I know," he conceded. Cabaret act Justin Bond wailed Nina Simone’s "22nd Century" and thrust his middle finger violently at a cutout of Bush — in what was part satire routine, part venting of spleen — reminding us that none of it has really been very funny, after all.

Sonya Cheung, a novelist who stood in Harlem’s below-freezing weather to watch the speech outside, noticed a real solemnity among the crowd, like they had just been given permission to mourn. "A commentator on [local broadcaster]NY 1 said something like this must almost be how the Iraqis felt when Saddam Hussein was deposed," she said. "I’m a cynical person. I’ve never waved one of these," she said, pulling a paper American flag out of her bag. "But I did today".

Patriotism aside, well over a million Americans have lost their jobs in the 77 days since the glitter of Grant Park. When the spirit of sacrifice begins to include lots of real sacrifice, American unity and resolve may be sorely tested.

When polled recently about their expectations of Obama’s presidency, a majority of Americans said they don’t expect real progress to be made on the economy, the war in Iraq or reform of the healthcare system for at least two years. Looking around an inauguration party at SOB’s bar in West Village, it was pretty obvious that the future was the last thing on people’s minds. They’ll get up and do that tomorrow. One day at a time.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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