I felt a bittersweetness fill my cup on Inauguration Day. Honestly, I was holding my breath in anticipation of error, hatred, or further danger. Living the overt trauma of 2015-2021 has undoubtedly taken its toll on me. Though excited for new beginnings, I had grown accustomed to what was translated as random acts of violence and hatred and had grown weary in the long slog toward a promise of better days ahead. And for those who were privileged to experience the abridged version of my trauma during 2020-2021, it’s safe to say that many of us were looking forward to a collective sigh of relief.
The tradition of Inauguration Day is a symbolic gesture of peace and joy between parties where all of our officials come together as one body politic to present the new executive leader to the people of our country and the world… and somehow on this day, I felt sorrow.
As I watched the festivities unfold on YouTube and watched as our men and women in our military rightfully display the might required to protect our nation’s capital and the proceedings that day, I was reminded that a few bad apples actually do spoil the bunch. A few, rather a mob of enraged insurrectionists pushed the access of our democratic spaces further away from the people on January 6th. In order to bring stability and peace of mind to the process and ensure the safety of our elected officials on January 20th, Washington D.C. was in effect a military state.
It gave me comfort but it also made me think, how many fewer students will now get to tour the Capitol building, the White House, or the Supreme Court building? How many fewer people will be able to attend large national celebrations of our country for fear that those events will end in murder or harm? How can we cultivate a love for country and government if people only experience it on screens and through media interpretations and sound bites? This is dangerous.
As we move toward order and safety, we move further away from freedom and privilege. And when I think about it, even more, the necessity for our elected officials’ safety is paramount but at what cost? What have “we” done? What have the insurrectionists done, but move our civic spaces further from the people, people like them who actually need to be connected to the beauty and messiness of how our system works?
As Inauguration Day unfolded, I spoke with my daughters about going into the Capitol Building and sitting through a session, visiting the White House for events, and it seemed so foreign and so far away for them. To them these spaces were off-limits, castles reserved for important people only. I admit that as a resident of the DC Metro area, we were super lucky to be a quick subway train ride from Capitol Hill. Pre-COVID, we took advantage almost every summer. Although I had not taken my kids to our government buildings, we’d visited all of the Smithsonian Museums (not just Air and Space), toured monuments, went up in the Washington Monument, and spent many days on the Mall lawn. I was waiting for their school to take them on tours of our big three- Supreme Court, Capitol Building, and the White House. I was going to chaperone... I now regret waiting.
Every child living on American soil should visit Washington, D.C.
In 8th grade, my school took a trip from Ohio in chartered buses to Washington D.C. It was a trip I had waited for my entire middle school life and I was so excited. Before leaving I remember my late grandmother telling me that these spaces- the White House, the Capitol, the Supreme Court, the monuments, these spaces belong to the people. As a black woman born in the 1930s, what a grand idea to have and to feel especially when so many of these spaces were not originally designed to represent the interests of Black and non-black people of color, women, non-Christians, LGBTQIA+ folks... To be honest, my grandmother lived through some of the ugliest parts of America’s attempts to rebrand itself and unfortunately, many of her years mirror events and sentiments my own children see and hear. But in her mind and in her heart, America the Beautiful was real and it was something worth believing in. It was a place of hope…
Black people inherently, whether we admit it or not, have hope for the United States as an enterprise. We are invested. Black labor built those monuments and erected those white marble buildings. Black blood fueled the economy that gave a newly born nation the courage to venture on its own, away from England’s colonial rule. And as it remains unspoken, I will say that most Black people, those descendants of enslaved people like myself, have been here well before a Constitution was signed, a Declaration of Independence was announced, or a Louisiana was “purchased”. Many have been waiting patiently, furiously, as the promises of our revered documents and the words echoed in the walls we’ve built would trickle down to us.
I could hear my late grandmother’s words so clearly as I watched the inauguration. “These are our spaces. We pay for their maintenance and upkeep. We are a special country because it belongs to all of the people.”
And now, because of a few people who don’t know how to act, will we be able to access them? Will our children’s children? I watched on YouTube with my children, saddened by the grandeur of the inauguration and how now only a select few were present. It was the opposite of democracy.
What had the insurrectionist done?
Every child living on American soil should visit Washington, D.C. It shouldn't be something that schools can't afford to do. These experiences can't just be available to schools close by or schools with great civic standards. My 8th grade trip to Washington D.C. changed my life. It solidified why I love to lean into the complexity of America. It connected what was learned in class and made government real and tangible.
We met our House Rep who told us that even if we grew up and didn't vote for him, we needed to vote (I'll have to search for the picture). We toured the monuments, went up inside the Washington Monument, visited the Capitol, the Supreme Court, and toured the White House, and visited Arlington Cemetery and Mount Vernon or Monticello… I can’t remember, it was one of them; and to be fair I may have erased the distinction between the two, as I had felt the dissonance of slavery vibrate in every one of my atoms on that tour of the plantation, not estate, a plantation. Dealing with those emotions was important for me and I'm sure that it was important for other classmates who may not have been able to fully articulate what they were feeling.
Living in the DC Metro makes me think about how that 8th grade trip may have inadvertently pushed me to call this metropolis my home now. Inauguration Day is our Mardi Gras, our Super Bowl. There's an electricity in the air as we excitedly roll out the welcome mat, inviting citizens from afar and the world, to a vibrant diverse community of people that mostly spend their days in the boringness of daily government activity, For me, the saddest state of affairs is seeing the military, not civilians, lined up along the streets. It's sad to see flags and not people on the Mall lawn cheering. It’s frustrating to know that seeing our men and women in the armed forces on edge and ready to protect and serve, is the proper response to internal terrorism. It is the proper response. We have to send that message but will that message stay? Is this the new normal?
As we move forward as a nation, as we rebuild, we must remember that the beauty of democracy is that the people are the foundation of its success. That if children do not have access to our government spaces they will lose touch as to why they are beautiful and must be defended when they get older. Kids need access to government spaces. We must teach each generation to respect these spaces, that’s where the insurrectionists and their apologists have gone wrong, they have no respect. It is not to say that we ascribe to tradition for tradition’s sake or welcome the continuation of true injustice. No, we must fight against tyranny but tyranny is not synonymous with temper tantrums.
When we elevate elected officials to elite status, we misconstrue their role and purpose in our lives. They become enemies when they should be partners, collaborators, and allies. These people are here to serve and represent the values and needs of their constituents, not the other way around. A people must never be afraid of their government and a government should not be afraid of the people. Neighbors should not fear or loathe each other. As we begin to gather back in spaces face-to-face, let us continue to uphold safety, dignity, and respect; but let us never lose access to the halls where our laws are passed, bills are vetoed, justice is administered. Because when only a select few are granted access to these sacred spaces, we no longer have a democracy.
P.S. Shout out to the “Celebrating America” event for pulling everyone in on the evening of Inauguration Day. It was beautiful to see the focus on the richness of the American spirit as a nation of helpers and brave people of all ages working to uphold our shared ideals.
I'm a former teacher and former college athlete, currently working to make life more equitable for all people. My mission is to get parents to partner with their child's teacher.