On Jan. 20, Americans put aside an element of our national character that we didn’t need — tribalism.
For too many years, Americans have seen themselves and others as members of separate tribes: white, black, Asian, Hispanic and other sub-categories that kept us apart and brought to mind ethnic stereotypes we learned in childhood.
But in Washington D.C., on Tuesday, standing elbow to elbow in the shadows of the Washington Monument and the Capitol, I and 2 million other people watched Barack Obama assume the office of president of the United States, and the cold temperatures of the day went unnoticed as the warmth of unity blanketed the crowd that felt privileged to be there.
And for the first time — in a long time — we saw each other differently.
Strangers of all hues looked at one another and smiled in our togetherness, overjoyed at the fact that on this day we shared the experience of a great turning point in our national history, and we saw that it was good and it was right.
As the crowds gathered around the Capitol early Tuesday morning, police greeted us with a smile and a welcome wave, strangers helped out-of-towners with directions. Long lines of waiting to enter the gates was interrupted by a fun rendition of the hokeypokey and the singing of “If I Had a Hammer” and other songs led by a woman in a purple coat and scarf who just happened to be in line.
A man from Michigan went off to get coffee to ward off the early morning chill and came back with extra cups for others waiting in line with him. The coffee was handed to grateful people who warmed their hands as well as their stomachs. He asked for nothing in return.
The crowds were massive; even just crossing the street was an endeavor. At one point I found myself sinking in the middle of an ocean of people, my short stature dwarfed by others when a man standing near me grabbed my arm and said “I’ll help you” and across the street we went. “Now you take care,” he said as he evaporated into the crowd.
At least 2 million people attended the inauguration and police report that there were no arrests.
We watched history take place before us, and in silence heard Obama take the Oath of Office.
And when Aretha Franklin sang “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” tears flowed from men and women, old and young, and people of all the colors of our national rainbow wept with joy as Americans.
Diana Graettinger is a reporter for the Bangor Daily News in Calais.