The day that more than 81 million Americans have been waiting for was, on Jan. 20, finally here.
The American nation and world, paralyzed by pandemic, focused its gaze upon the steps of the U.S. Capitol where, upon its many steps, stood Joseph R. Biden Sr. for his inauguration as the 46th president of the United States of America.
The ceremony served as the nation’s 59th inaugural since 1776. Despite Inauguration Day existing as a tradition as old as the nation itself, this year’s observance was in many ways, unlike any other.
In the twilight of the preceding dusk, then President-elect Biden and his wife Dr. Jill Biden joined Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris and husband Doug Emhoff in leading a solemn ceremony remembering the more than 400,000 American lives lost to COVID-19.
The voice of Cardinal Wilton Gregory, Archbishop of Washington; songs of Lori Marey Key, Michigan COVID Unit nurse; and award-winning Gospel singer Yolanda Adams rang out in reverence and remembrance before a vast field of 400 lights.
“Tonight, we grieve and begin healing together,” the President-elect said before standing with his wife and the Vice President-elect and her husband to look out upon the reflecting pool of the Lincoln Memorial.
By the time the sun rose the next morning, the solemnity of the ceremony had been traded, although not nearly forgotten, for all of the pomp and pageantry of inaugural days of yesteryear.
Granted, it was still different. With an ongoing pandemic raging out of control, the city was fortressed not merely against the spread of the virus, but also against the real threat of domestic terrorism.
Vigorous background checks, tall fences, heavy concrete barriers, and tight security checkpoints were constant reminders of the troubling potential of violence.
Those arriving at the Capitol did so in caravans of SUVs.
Though an abundance of caution demanded that there were fewer of them than in previous years, distinguished guests began arriving at the U.S. Capitol with a glamour easily likened to Hollywood’s red carpet.
None arguably walked out onto the world view to more rave reviews than Former First Lady Michelle Obama whose marvelous in merlot Sergio Hudson ensemble was finished off with a matching belt bearing an unapologetically bold gold detailing.
Her appearance was rivaled by one woman alone, and she was the woman of the hour and of this day.
Howard University graduate, member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., and daughter of immigrants — Kamala Devi Harris — the first woman, first Black woman, and first South Asian woman to be elected Vice President of the United States, entered regally dressed in purple as a nod to the 1975 presidential bid of her idol Shirley Chisholm with a single interrupted strand of pearls in kinship with the millions of women around the country and world who likewise adorned themselves in tribute to her.
Harris ascended the dais with her husband and was escorted by Capitol police officer Eugene Goodman, who was promoted to acting deputy Senate Sergeant-at-Arms since risking his life to protect members of Congress when a mob of angry Trump supporters stormed the building in insurrection on Jan. 6.
Just two weeks later, a formerly ransacked Capitol, largely cleaned by Black custodial staff, played host to a world stage where Harris gently leaned down to cradle the cheek of her grandniece who, along with her sister, was styled to mimic a young Kamala Harris.
Harris bumped fists with Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president. A two-handed fist bump with Former First Lady Obama was only less exciting than the tender moment between the two when Harris, pressing her hand across her chest, acknowledged Obama in a salute between sister-girls that Black women immediately understood.
Much about the day would have likely been very different had it not been for legions of Black voters, overwhelmingly organized by Black women.
The remarkable nature of the great debt owed to Black women, in particular, is a fulfillment of both the pain and promise of a franchise that was denied to so many of them at the time of Harris’ birth.
The successes of the day were also made possible by the timely endorsement of James Clyburn, the highest–ranking Black lawmaker in Congress, who was seen greeting Harris in a suit topped off by a South Carolina State University cap, a clear nod to his historically-black college Alma Mater.
The sounds of military band trumpets echoed out onto a virtually empty crowd, a glaring physical symbol of the challenges the American nation now faces.
On one hand, the clarion call represented a guard against the spread of the COVID-19 virus. On the other, it was a precaution against the looming threat of white nationalist terrorism.
History-making Black woman fire captain Andrea Hall, in a first-ever move, included American Sign Language along with her verbal recitation of the country’s Pledge of Allegiance. Entertainers Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, and Garth Brooks sang, but the excitement was especially palpable when Harris was sworn in by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor on two Bibles.
The first was owned by the late Thurgood Marshall, a graduate of the historically-black Lincoln University of Pennsylvania and Howard University Law School. Marshall, who went on to a storied career that included the historic Brown vs. Board of Education case of 1954 — a critical trial that would desegregate public education — was also the first Black person to serve on the nation’s High Court.
The second Bible was owned by Regina Shelton, a Black Louisiana woman whom Harris considers a second mother. Its inclusion at this moment, as when Harris was sworn in as California’s first Black senator and first Black attorney general, honored the importance of Black mother figures, as well as the significance of her own mother and guardian angel, Indian immigrant and cancer researcher, the late Dr. Shyamala Gopalan.
Harris’s steely stoicism broke only when finally repeating “so help me God.” As Harris smiled, her younger sister, Maya, tearfully stood behind her, the two sisters undoubtedly thinking of their devoted single mother.
Still, it was Biden’s address that would have normally transfixed the would-be large crowd.
“This is America’s day. This is democracy’s day,” Biden said after taking the oath of office from Chief Justice John Roberts. “Today, we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate, but of a cause. The cause of democracy. The people, the will of the people, has been heard, and the will of the people has been heeded.”
In his 21-minute inaugural address, Biden noted that a “riotous mob” had seized the Capitol just two weeks before.
“Through a crucible for the ages, America has been tested anew and America has risen to the challenge,” Biden said. “We’ve learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. And, at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.”
Even so, it was the words of 22-year-old Amanda Gorman, the nation’s youngest ever poet laureate, that may have resonated even more with listeners.
“Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished,” Gorman said in her poem, titled, “The Hill We Climb.” “We, the successors of a country and a time where a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming President, only to find herself reciting for one.”
Decked in a peacoat the color of Beyoncé’s lemonade yellow reminiscent of Oshun, Gorman wore a ring gifted to her by Oprah Winfrey, with a caged bird symbolizing Maya Angelou, whose poetic styling had now-long ago captured the nation at President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration.
Inspired by the oratory of Angelou, Frederick Douglass, and President Lincoln, Gorman closed even more powerfully than she began.
“For there is always light,” Gorman said. “If only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
Shortly before fireworks danced across the D.C. sky to bring an end a spectacular and singular history-making day, Harris made her first address holding the nation’s second-highest office.
“We are undaunted in our belief that we shall overcome, that we will rise up,” Harris said. “This, too, is American Aspiration. This is what President Joe Biden has called upon us to summon now. The courage to see beyond crisis. To do what is hard. To do what is good. To unite. To believe in ourselves. Believe in our country. Believe in what we can do—together.”