We Celebrate Black History Month 2009
Three Generations of Africam American Women Reflect on President Obama’s Inauguration
Shelia Evans-Tranumn *
Dr. Adelaide L. Sanford * Deanna Evans
On January 20, 2009 the Negro The National Anthem became an anthem for all Americans.
Lift every voice and sing, Till earth and heaven Ring
Ring with the harmony of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise, High as the listening skies
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
The journey to Washington had been filled with months of great expectations. In August of 2008 I witnessed the election of Barack Obama as the Democratic nominee for President of the United States of America in Denver, Colorado. Sitting in the skybox with notables such as Adelaide Sanford, LeVar Burton, Tracey Ross, L. Londell McMillan, Angela Bassett, Jessie and Jackie Jackson, Karen and Herbert Daughtry and others, I listened attentively as Hillary Rodham Clinton, a presidential candidate herself, cast all of New York’s vote for Barack Obama and then called for the roll call to come to an end so that the convention could declare a son of Africa the Democratic nominee. The electricity pierced through the air as banners started waving, screams of joy bounced off every wall and tears rolled down cheeks like a mighty streams. As a spirit of victory permeated the arena each African American found the eyes of others and regardless of age we heard through each other’s tear stained eyes the declaration,” I never thought I would live to see an African American become the Democratic nominee in my lifetime.” Was it possible that America had changed? Only time would tell.
Election night I was at the Sheraton Hotel in midtown Manhattan. The room was packed with those that wanted to witness the future of America side-by-side with those who at least felt the hope could be realized. When the election results flashed across the giant screens, the first person I called was Adelaide Sanford, the granddaughter of a chattel slave. Amid the screams and tears we once again acknowledged that we never thought we would live to see America express her humanity, her civility and her hopefulness in this manner. More determined that ever, we knew we had to get to Washington to witness the inauguration for ourselves.
Stony the road we trod, Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat, Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
The journey to Washington, DC was a part of the imperative that if given the chance, we would weather the cold, the lines and the long walk to see the first African American take the oath of office as President of the United States of America. On January 20th we left the hotel at 7:00am we took the circuitous route outlined by metal barricades for pedestrian traffic. Millions came from around the world on a pilgrimage to Capitol Hill. With cane in hand, Vice Chancellor Emerita Sanford’s gait was slow and steady. I walked a few paces ahead of her to break the cold, the wind, and the sea of humanity that met us on every turn. We finally arrived inside the gate of the Capitol around 9:00 am even though our hotel was only a few blocks away. During the two-hour journey I would stop and ask, “Are you tired; do you want to rest?” At eighty-three years old, her response back to me echoed the gospel song,” I don’t feel no ways tired.” It was a day set aside to appreciate every step of the journey because it made us keenly aware of every struggle that had to be overcome to witness this day in history. Barack Obama became the symbol of what so many Americans could have achieved if slavery had not been an impressionable part of their American experience. This son out of African, this African American was spared the genetic memory of having mothers and grandfathers and uncles and great aunts who felt the pains of slavery and its aftermath. The pain I saw as a child will never be erased. It was the pain of seeing my beloved Uncle Edward’s mutilated body. His only crime was looking at a white woman in a public place. Beaten nearly half to death he survived, but his mind would never be the same for as long as he lived. The pain of beatings, lynchings, water hoses and dogs occupied space in each step that I took.
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered;
Out from the gloomy past, Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
Sitting there in the bitter cold, I saw others who had made their way to witness history, to sit in the cold and to walk the lines. Halle Berry, Jamie Fox, Tyra Banks, Bruce Springsteen, L. Londell McMillan, Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker just to name a few. But the real stories of triumph were depicted by two precious souls. Two men arrived not on their own strength, but through the strength of friends. One was carried on a stretcher and another had his entire body weight supported by the necks of two friends who carried him on the journey. This day was not for the faint of heart. It was a day for the determined, the brave, and the proud. I traveled to Washington to witness history, but I came to understand sitting in the bitter cold that I too was making history. With the oath of office taken, the tears flowed, kisses and hugs were given to and received by strangers, and for the first time since Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, I too wanted to burst out and recite the Pledge of Allegiance for liberty and justice for all was now a stark reality. I stood with my eyes closed as frozen tears left timeless marks on my cheeks and recited along with the Reverend Joseph Lowery’s prayer the closing stanza of the Negro National Anthem,
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
Though who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might, Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, Our God, where we met Thee;
Lest our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand, May we forever stand,
True to our God, True to our native land. #
Shelia Evans-Tranumn is the Associate Commissioner of Education, New York State.
Dr. Adelaide L. Sanford
The inauguration was not a singularly spectacular event to me. It was a day awash with retrospection, and replete with “Sankofa”—“looking back to move forward”.
Grandma was an enigmatic wonder to me. She did not bear grievances. It was eons before I understood how well she hid her pain, covered the scabs and repressed her grief for her children and her grand children’s sake. She told her story so that the knowledge would protect us. Her telling revealed a spiritual triumph, a knowing and validation of self though engulfed by pronouncements of her inhumanity.
I probed seeking to capture the source and the reservoir of her capacity to love and nurture when she had known so little of either in her life as a chattel slave in South Carolina and Mississippi. Each time sold—given a new name, but never her own. Her ubiquitous response was “I lived because of what I know you would see, hear and be”.
The irrevocable movement of time has brought me to a deeper understanding of her futuristic, telescopic “knowing”. My burden was to maintain a genetic tenacious consciousness. The consummation of her prophecy was and is within me.
In my travels I saw the tombs and temples in Aswan Egypt with their inscribed record of majesty and genius. I saw the ruins of Zimbabwe, which spoke of kingdoms, architecture, sculptures, and ordered functional communities. I wept in Senegal at “The Door of No Return”. I smelled the blood that never dried in the monstrous slave dungeons of Ghana. In muted horror, I saw mutilated bodies, “strange fruit hanging from southern trees”, in the backwoods of Vicksburg, Mississippi. As I witnessed the human detritus of years of unparalleled subjugation and rejection, convulsively, ice began to encapsulate my heart. But I never forgot the opulent effulgence of Timbuktu and the Sudan.
I visited the artifacts, masks, and statues brazenly stolen from Africa which are now on display in France, Spain, and Germany in famed museums. Ancient treasures created by those called savage. I read Toynbee, Hegel, and Agassiz’s ill fated tomes denigrating and dismissive of Africa and its progeny. I chaffed under the scathing retribution of scholars seeking to eradicate these erroneous descriptions.
Although deep family pride emanated from the earning of masters’ degrees from New York University and Wellesley College, degrees in medicine from Meharry Medical School, and the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, doctorates from Fordham University and Harvard University in addition to multiple honorary doctorates, the pernicious perpetuation of hegemonic policies and institutional practices mitigated against the realization of many of my people’s inestimable potential—a massive loss to America and to the world we inhabit.
On the bleak frosted morning of January 20, 2009, as I trudged, with my cane, past and through the maze of labyrinth-like barricades and metal fencing, pawed the frozen earth, wiped frozen crust from my eyes and cheeks, and clutched cocooned strangers to my throbbing bosom, I revisited past pilgrimages.
Is this what grandma wanted me to see? Through her soft, dim, gentle, tired eyes, she saw me. And her eyes, through mine, over the towering tumult with the backdrop of the craft of my ancestors, saw a rapacious, resplendent, iconic figure: President Barack Hussein Obama: Africa’s son, Suffused with ineffable emotions, the ice around my heart began to melt. #
Dr. Adelaide L. Sanford is Vice Chancellor Emerita and a member of the New York State Board of Regents.
I never thought that I would live to see a day like today. I never thought that I, even at the age of twenty-four, would ever live to see a reflection of my own Blackness in the White House. This metaphorical day represents much more than an ideological shift in American politics taking place, but the presidency of Barack Obama signifies a loosening of historic chains for people of African descent struggling to hold fast to their humanity in America.
As a young woman of African American descent, I am attempting to understand the significance of this historic election, both through my own eyes as well as through the distant vantage point of my grandparents, now deceased, who never imagined that America could transform itself in such a dramatic way. In fact, when I reflect on the legacies of George and Eunice Evans, my maternal grandparents, I think of the destructive manifestations of southern segregation and northern social stratification that preyed on their sense of dignity; the personal and professional opportunities lost as they worked as sharecroppers under the glare of the North Carolinian sunshine; the faith that they exhibited by giving their youngest daughter, Shelia Evans-Tranumn, the very last of their money so that she could be the first in our family to attend college; and their inability, due to race and class, to truly participate in the democratic process. Their jagged experiences illuminate the ways in which race and class often dictated the spheres of power and success that were available for them and their children. Therefore, I see in the reflected image of their difficult and constrained experiences in America the significance of today’s political landscape and its capacity to change me and others of my generation.
I believe that America and I changed in fundamental ways on November 4, 2008. For me, Election Day taught me that America had expanded its definition of my potential to achieve success beyond my limited understanding. Being a person of African descent, I believe that we subconsciously understand that there are certain realms of influence and success that will never be available for our partaking. To some extent, we are conditioned to believe that many of our voices will forever be muted, despite the strength of our democracy. We are taught to understand that racism, both in its overt and covert forms, will shape our dreams and dictate many our possibilities. However, as I waited to vote for three hours on the morning of November 4th, I witnessed fissures forming in the same fortified walls that prevented my grandparents from operating within certain spheres of power, influence and policy. As determined senior citizens stood in line with canes and young mothers held heavy babies on their hips, I knew that they felt America changing as well. I think we all understood, that day, that the election was much greater than Barack, but his ascendancy represented a tangible display of Martin’s dream that many of us believed would never be fully realized.
Two months later, I stood in the freezing D.C. cold in order to witness President Obama and Vice President Biden take their respective oaths of office. As I stood there with my friend who had worked tirelessly on the Obama campaign in Virginia, the discomfort of the cold was dwarfed by the significance of the era that we were entering. As he proclaimed, “I, Barack Hussein Obama …”, I cried a river of tears that went much deeper than even I understood. My cathartic emotional release represented the answered prayers of my maternal grandparents, the sobs of my fore parents that toiled on southern plantations, the moans of ancestors who were confined on Native American reservations, the screams of family members incarcerated in American prisons, and the unloosed possibilities of my unborn children. For the first time in my life, I felt both American and whole.#