Friday, January 23, 2009

The Inauguration - 2

When I was young I used to feel sorry for old people. Being young I knew that what I did was going to have an effect on the future, but old people were, well, old, and to be old was to belong to the past. I was convinced that old people were envious of us, the young, because youth was life.

However, there were also terrifying moments when I realized that one day I might be old, and being old I would be jealous of the young. How did the old live with the despair of knowing their lives were over? How did they live knowing that the only thing the future held for them was death? How awful to be old and filled with jealousy of young people and all the wonderful things they were doing.

But as I watched the pre-inaugural concert on Sunday and the inauguration itself, I did not feel sorry for myself, envy the young, nor miss my own youth. Instead I was happy to see and feel the energy and vitality of youth as a part of political life again.

And the celebratory energy of the young people at the inauguration was different than the energy we had in the Sixties. Our energy was angry, but it was also threaded with anxiety and uncertainty. We did not know if what we were trying to do - end segregation, end the war in Vietnam, change the way Americans thought about race, etc. - was going to succeed. We felt ourselves to be engaged in a battle, and the consequences could be death, as it was for some in the civil rights movement and on college campuses.

The sheer happiness on the faces of the young (as well as the old) at the inauguration is unlike anything I've ever witnessed. It is a different kind of energy, a much needed energy, an energy that is transforming in and of itself on a national scale. For people to come together in public space - not in anger, not because they're against something, not to be entertained - but to affirm changes in the qualities of our relationships to each other is profoundly different.

It is especially wonderful to have youth in the White House, and I mean the President and the First Lady, not their children. One of the important things a president does is set the emotional tone for the entire country. The tone set by the Obamas is one of love for each other, one of pleasure in clothes, in sports, in people. They are comfortable in their bodies. And President Obama's smile can brighten a day for the entire country.

So I am thankful to the young for renewing the spirit of this country, for bringing joy into the public arena, for affirming the good, but not in any narrow moralistic sense. I am talking about that universal good which can be evoked by something as simple as a smile that starts in the soul and floods into the eyes and raises the lips upward and opens to reveal the teeth while looking at the person next to you.

Smiles like that are powerful political statements.

© 2009 Julius Lester

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