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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Inauguration 2009: The light beyond my parents' tall shadows

“Mama exhorted her children at every opportunity to ‘jump at de sun.’ We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground.”
--Zora Neale Hurston


My journey to Washington, D.C., with my parents—John Due and Dr. Patricia Stephens Due—and my sister Johnita ended, in many ways, as my family’s journey began: with an act of defiance.

For weeks before the inauguration, my mother had talked about wanting to gather soil in Washington, D.C. to take home and mingle with the rich red clay of Gadsden County, Florida, where she was born and lives now. Then, she would plant a tree in honor of the fallen foot-soldiers whose shoulders Barack Obama stood on to get where he is. I suggested that we make a pilgrimage to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and collect her soil near the White House grounds.

It was the day after President Barack Hussein Obama’s inauguration. Most of the masses had begun their way back home, but many of us still lingered. My parents and I reached the gate at the rear of the White House, an iconic image we know so well from movies and television—the visual symbol for the greatest power on planet Earth.

A sidewalk for visitors ran parallel to a restricted driveway where vehicles could only enter with proper identification. The only thing separating our pedestrian sidewalk from the restricted driveway was a thick ceremonial chain linked low to the ground—beyond the chain, a three-foot strip of colorless grass and soil, then the asphalt the police were guarding. The White House itself, closer to our sidewalk, was protected by a much higher iron gate.

After we posed in front of the White House gate, I noticed an eight-foot gap in the chain on the driveway side, so grass and soil were easily accessible. Seemed like a good spot! My parents agreed, so I brought out a little spoon and squatted to loosen at the hard soil so my mother would have enough to scoop into a little plastic bag.

With the White House gate less than six feet away and the Washington Monument behind her, my mother kneeled to gather the soil…and I readied my camera to take her picture.

We did not go unnoticed by the police officers monitoring the crowd. A uniformed young male officer approached my mother and said belligerently, “Move—NOW.”

My mother was kneeling, and in her heavy winter coat she was slow to rise. Instead, she tried to explain her purpose. When the officer cut her off, she seemed puzzled by his hostility.

“You stay on THIS side of the chain—that’s why it’s there. Move NOW,” he said again, in that voice that most people would leap to obey.

But my mother is not most people. She has never been one to simply do as she was told, whether by a police officer or anyone else. And this police officer had a sharpness in his tone that brought back bad memories of police officers in Tallahassee, Ocala, St. Petersburg, Miami and New York who had carted her to jail in the 1960s.

In those days, the only terrorism in the news was domestic—but those bomb blasts and attacks by police dogs and fire hoses were never called “terrorism.” On that winter day after the inauguration of the 44th president, my mother was still wearing the dark glasses she has been forced to wear since a police officer lobbed a teargas canister in her face during a peaceful Tallahassee march when she was only 19. Her eyes have been sensitive to light indoors and outdoors since.

My mother spent 49 days in jail for sitting-in at a Woolworth lunch counter. The police had tried to order her to move back then, too. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sent a telegram to her and the four other Florida A&M students, including my aunt, Priscilla Stephens Kruize, who were a part of that Jail-In. (It was the nation's first Jail-In during the student sit-in movement.)

The confrontations didn’t end in the 1960s: In 1992, in the wake of Hurricane Andrew in Miami, my mother faced off against a swarm of police officers who raided my parents’ property in the dead of night because of a mistaken report of a “suspicious black man in a white van.” By pure luck, my parents and cousin were not hurt that night.

At the White House gate, as I saw the growing defiance on my mother’s hardening face, I had a nightmarish vision of our once-in-a-lifetime inauguration trip ending at the police station and on the nightly news. My father and I hushed her and coaxed her away, promising better soil elsewhere. (For a time, two or three officers followed us, watching.)

My mother got her soil. Upon the advice of a kindly White House park ranger posted near the visitor entrance, we chose softer, richer soil in a non-restricted area. My mother was more afraid of the hungry, fearless squirrel approaching her than she had been of the police officer. She scooped up as much as she liked—far better soil than at the other site.

Later, we could laugh. My sister Johnita, who had stayed behind in our warm hotel room, was aghast at the story: Whey didn’t Mom simply do as she was told right away?

“Don’t you know your mother by now?” my father said.


My family’s character has always been shaped by my parents’ courtship in the civil rights era. Instead of “dating,” they went to meetings and protests together—and fell in love.

My mother was visible and audible on the front lines. My father’s legal mind toiled and strategized behind the scenes. He once represented Dr. King after in arrest in St. Augustine, and helped pioneer an important strategy to bypass state courts in civil rights cases.

My parents raised us in meetings and on picket lines. Last year, we celebrated an early family holiday on Election Night, when my sisters and I brought our families to watch the returns in Quincy, Florida. I’ll never forget the shout of joy that rang through the house when the words “President-elect Barack Obama” first appeared on the television screen.

Naturally, my parents wanted to go to Washington for the inauguration.

But decades of community activism and political involvement had not borne any offers for tickets. My parents are great at giving, but not so good at asking—so my sisters and I asked on their behalf. I posted a blog entry right here, wrote letters and begged my Facebook friends.

My sister, in a leap of faith, booked us a hotel room to share. Tickets or no tickets, we wanted to experience the inauguration too.

Moments before my redeye took off for Washington, a sudden email appeared on my phone: TICKETS!!!! Andre L. Gaines, a screenwriter I met when I spoke at my alma mater Northwestern University years ago, had a friend who works for someone in the Obama administration. He’d forwarded the email with my blog essay, and when his friend read it, he offered my parents Silver tickets.

I rushed straight from the airport to the convention center to pick up the tickets. “After that email you sent…it was the least we could do,” Andre’s friend said.

The honor of your presence is requested is requested at the ceremonies attending the inauguration of the President and Vice-President of the United States…

Alone, when I held the two tickets in my unsteady hands and read them, I cried.

And so my trip to Washington began with tears.

And blood.

I’ve never had a nosebleed before—but as I sat in the Starbucks in the lobby of the Renaissance Hotel the morning I arrived with my tickets, I realized my nose was bleeding. Excitement? Dry, cold air? At the time, I was typing a journal entry on my laptop…and when the initial surprise passed, I plugged my nose with a Kleenex and typed one-handed, rapid-fire.

As I think back on it, the blood was symbolic. My mother and I wrote a memoir together, Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights—not to mention our virtual home-schooling on black history twelve months a year—so I didn’t need Martin Luther King Day to remind me of how much blood had been spilled. A little nosebleed seemed like a small price to pay. I barely noticed; I didn’t even excuse myself from a crowded table to go to the restroom.

I had too much to write about.


I was on a budget, as usual, so I didn’t pay to attend any balls—but my sister had been invited to two free functions and brought me as her guest: One to a Reception sponsored by Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (a friend of Obama’s whom many political insiders believe taught Obama a thing or two about politics), and then to the Inaugural Ball sponsored by, co-founded by Henry Louis Gates.

The Root’s ball was a Who’s Who. I ran into an old friend, author Amy Alexander, and we wandered the room with her friend Victor, who pulled me out of my shyness. I got a polite smooch from Spike Lee, who told me I was a “marvelous writer.” I had a quick chat with director John Singleton, who remembered me from an earlier meeting. I ran into my friend, author and commentator Farai Chideya, who was with her mother.

We even had an Oprah moment! We were standing beside an elevator when The Original O herself climbed out, and for a moment I was standing only five feet from her. My hand was practically outstretched for an introduction (we spoke on the phone years ago, and I know she enjoyed my novel My Soul to Keep), but her burly bodyguard was suddenly standing between us. Another elevator car opened, and she was gone in a blink.

(Maybe next time, Oprah!)

Other attendees included Alice Walker, Bob Woodward, Chris Tucker, Biz Markie (who deejayed!), a slew of former co-workers from The Miami Herald, and too many others to mention.

And the week was just getting started.



Monday was Martin Luther King Day. My mother stayed behind in the hotel room, but Johnita, Dad and I went to the Washington Monument to join the eager crowds anticipating a history-making day. In August of 1963, married only since January, my parents journeyed to Washington on the "Freedom Train" to attend the March on Washington as special guests. Returning 46 years later, my father was brimming with memories as the past and present collided.
It felt like coming Home.

I’ll never forget the ocean of smiles. Smiles were our universal language.

Jumbotrons played excerpts from Barack Obama’s remarks on Sunday, his voice ringing across the Reflecting Pool and throughout the National Mall. Sojourners of all races, ages and ethnicities from across the country and the world snapped photos of strangers who asked. Wheelchairs were plastered with Obama stickers. Obama’s name was on hats, scarves, jackets, purses, and buttons, reminiscent of a giant sporting event where everyone was rooting for the same team.

Politeness unparalleled. Shining eyes. Everyone shining. All races. No races.

My father recalled his earlier visits for the March on Washington and the Million Man March, gazing at the wonder of Now. My sister, father and I took a photo in front of the Washington Monument, standing tall to stab the cloudy sky.

But there were no clouds in the faces of those of us gathered there.

There was an Illinois Ball in our hotel that night, and German shepherds on leashes led Special Police officers through the lobby. These weren’t the dogs of Birmingham, Selma and Tallahassee, even if they were the same breed. These were the dogs of The New Day.

Irony visible in every blink of the eye.

An older white woman sitting primly in ball finery in the lobby—someone’s grandmother—held a striking vinyl handbag with Barack Obama’s image, so I asked her if I could take a picture of her with my video camera. She agreed. “You should see the other side!” her female companion said, and she flipped it over to show another photo: Barack with Michelle, Malia and Sasha, all grinning.

The Obama family’s faces pulled me out of videographer mode, and I was just a witness again: I stared, struck anew. A black family so much like mine—on this woman’s purse.

(Why can’t I write about these days without tears?

As a child, my family was not welcome. When I was three years old, my parents tried to enroll me in Montessori school in Miami, but no school would accept me because of my brown skin. I went home and covered the offending skin in baby powder. “Mommy, will they let me go to school now?” In the fifth grade, young children and teenagers called me “nigger” as I walked to elementary school. Our neighbors threw tomatoes at our Cutler Ridge house and put rocks in our gas tank.

We were a part of the neighborhood, but apart from the neighborhood.

A part of the nation, but apart from the nation.

Pain with nowhere to go, except in my writing. Pain taught me how to write.)

“What a beautiful purse!” I said, smiling. The rest could not be put to words.

The lobby flooded with ball-goers and security officials as motorcades and police motorcycles wailed past on the streets outside. Red velvet ropes and blue security lights checking identification. A school-mascot style giant Abraham Lincoln strolled the lobby floor.

U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. passed me, walking toward the elevator, and I called to him to introduce him to my parents. “Congratulations to us all,” he said.

Inside the hotel bar, called the Presidents’ Sports Bar, a large black and white photo of Barack Obama as a young boy with a baseball bat had a prime spot—a stone's throw from photos of Teddy Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.

What strange world is this?

Whatever dream this is, please don’t let me wake up.



Our wake-up call came at six a.m. as directed, but when we turned on CNN we could see that we had overslept by hours. The Mall was already crowded with those who had been up since four, or those who could not sleep at all.

As we rushed to dress, Johnita learned that she had an offer for even more coveted Purple tickets for our parents—in the standing Senate section, right in front of the Capitol. We only had to make it to Sixth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, blocks from the Capitol, to pick them up!

By that time, my cold-weary sister had already decided that she wanted to watch the inauguration indoors at the Newseum rather than trying to use the Silver tickets, so I planned to walk my parents to their Purple section seats and then fare the best I could. We set out together, but we expected to be separated before the swearing-in ceremony.

A driver got us as close to our destination as road closures allowed, and then we walked, melting into the wall of humanity literally blocking the street.

It was 8 a.m. By inauguration standards, it was very late.

When there was no movement forward in the crowd, we found an alley. When police on the other side told us we could not pass, we ducked into the coffee shop on the corner to circumvent the blockage. We walked with a mission.

We had only been outside for a few minutes, but my fingertips and ears were already tingling in the cold. (Yes, Northwestern University is in Evanston, Illinois, right outside of Chicago, but I loathe the cold!) I cast suspicious gazes at my father’s thin, fleece-lined coat, wondering how in the world he would last the day.

Once we reached the Newseum, where our new tickets awaited, we stood outside with a crowd for 15 or 20 minutes while our entrance was negotiated with the guards at the door.
Inside—we savored the heated hallways.

From the rooftop, we had a great view of the Capitol building only three blocks down the street—seemingly close enough to touch!

One last family meeting, and Johnita hugged us before my parents and I set down in the elevator armed with two Purple tickets. Cell phone service was spotty, so I knew that it was possible I wouldn’t be able to get back inside after I walked with my parents—assuming I could make it back that far at all!

At the door, we asked a U.S. Marshal advice about the best route.

“This street is closed,” he said. “You’ll have to go to Seventh, and then the gates won’t even open until 11.”

Our resolve deflated. For a ceremony beginning at 11:30 a.m., that was cutting it close.

“What would YOU do?” I asked him.

“I would stay here,” he said.

And so we did.

(After reading about the horrific difficulties experienced by Purple ticketholders in particular, thousands of whom were stuck huddled in a claustrophobic tunnel for hours, I am thankful every day that we made that decision. I mourn for a nameless elderly black woman I read about who called it the worst experience of her life—and many others suffered too.)

We had a lobby and large television screen practically to ourselves indoors—and when we wanted to brave the cold, we could go to the rooftop and see Pennsylvania Avenue below us, lined with police officers on either side.

On one end, we could see the Capitol building—and on the other, almost out of sight, the blur of the crowds at the Mall. (I was on the rooftop when I saw former President George W. Bush’s helicopter fly away.)

A shout filled the streets, and we saw a motorcade pass under our noses on Pennsylvania Avenue. After snapping a rooftop photo of my parents with the Capitol in the background, we went inside to watch the proceedings on TV.

Sen. Ted Kennedy, hours before his collapse, looked hale and joyful on the monitor. The appearance of former President Jimmy Carter reminded me of being Malia’s age, when my family was invited to meet then-candidate Carter and pose for a photo with our family and the late Florida Rep. Gwendolyn Cherry at a Miami hotel.

Malia and Sasha appeared on the TV screen like Sunshine itself.

There were others in and out of the lobby—other observers whose names, for the most part, we did not learn. Cooks watched from a far end of the hallway while police officers with bomb-sniffing dogs patrolled the elevators and rooftop.

But my family might as well have been alone.

When the ceremony began, we sat in a row on a sofa, mesmerized, our hands unconsciously clutching at each other as we watched the images unfold—my father’s hand on my sister’s shoulder, my sister’s hands on my father’s knee and mine, my hand on my sister’s knee and my mother’s, my mother’s arm around my shoulder. A human chain. (We missed you, Lydia, but we know you were there with us, too!)

At noon, while the gorgeous John Williams musical composition played, a caption on CNN’s screen pointed out that Barack Obama had just officially become president although he had not been sworn in. On television, I saw Michelle reach to her husband from where she sat behind him…and gently squeeze his shoulder.

A human chain.

We watched the oath, practically holding our breath. There were no shouts, no cries—only the silence of our witnessing. We all shed tears.

During President Obama’s inaugural address, I grabbed my video camera and ran back up to the rooftop, where I could hear his voice ringing up and down the street. The words were muffled to my hearing, but the resolve was clear.

My family was on the rooftop together when President Obama’s motorcade drove down Pennsylvania Avenue behind the V formation of police motorcycles—Secret Service officers walking beside the slow-moving vehicles—and the street erupted with a roar that seemed to shake the walls around me. The floor beneath me.

The roar shook me to my bones.

“He’s getting out of the car!” a voice cried from the other side of our rooftop, and although we ran as quickly as we could to try to get a better angle, the new President and First Lady were out of our sight.

We rushed back inside to see with our own eyes on TV.

There on Pennsylvania Avenue, Barack and Michelle Obama walked, smiling and waving. They walked free of fear.

On inauguration day, we all walked.


Our rooftop perch gave us a great view of the parade.

My mother was a junior at Florida A&M University the first time she was arrested, and my father attended law school there to become a civil rights soldier in his own way. Although women weren’t permitted to march in the band in the late-1950s, my mother played trumpet and bassoon in FAMU’s highly-esteemed concert and symphonic bands. (In junior high school band, I used to play trumpet duets with her.)

My parents contributed money to help the 400 members of FAMU’s marching band attend the inauguration parade—and we were watching from above as the band’s opening peals of “Celebration” filled Pennsylvania Avenue. My parents shouted and waved, as excited as children again.

When my mother was their age, she gave up childish things. And, like all veterans, my parents have not often made room for joy.

As the FAMU band played on, I saw the young people they might have been.

Thank you, Mom and Dad!

Thank you to the fallen of all races who did not live to see the day.


Demon Hunter said...

Silver tickets! OMG. That is awesome, Tananarive! I'm glad that they got to go. Will you be posting pictures of them at the ceremony as well? :-)

Kofi Bofah said...

You really broke this down, Ms. Due.

Is ZNH one of your inspirations?

Kofi Bofah said...

And when I read "red clay" I assumed Georgia. I am guessing that your family is from North Florida - or the panhandle close to Georgia.

South Florida soil is usually very dark - almost black.

Miss Jade's Notes said...

Thank God you got tickets, and your parents were able to bear witness to the Inauguration. Such a day...hardier friends braved the cold. I stayed home (PG County, MD) with the tv, furnace, and my supply of tissues, thanking God, and thinking that surely my own parents viewed the events from good seats in Heaven. Oh, I never dreamed I'd witness History....