The speech was big in another way:
We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and non-believers.This was unexpected. First, that he included Muslims and Hindus, and second, because he included us. It was just one little word, and for some it may have gone unnoticed, but for non-believers like myself, it was stunning. And I imagine for the ardent believers, it was infuriating. It was a big word, and it's enunciation and context is important.
Obama listed the big religions, and ones emerging, in our country, and then, after the briefest of pauses, he added us. I prefer not to read that pause as a hesitation. That pause seemed added so as to prepare the nation for what he was about to add--that he knew it was the first time, that it meant a lot. To my ear, it read like poety--not in some deep, sentimental way, but in it's construct. We were at the end, and maybe some cynics would prefer we were at the start, or mixed in the middle. But that pause, and that final word--"non-believers"--acted as punctuation. To my ear, that word became bigger and louder than the others. Maybe Muslims and Hindus feel the same way, but, as polls show, America hates us most.
Some might view this as a token gesture, like the assigning of Bishop Robinson to say a prayer on Sunday. For me, though, the context counted. We were not assigned some empty representative to stand up in some segment before the swearing in, where people could tune out and not really listen. We were deliberately inserted into Obama's speech--the main event--the words the nation all shut up to listen to. This ensured that everyone would hear it. HBO would not pull us off the air. People would not be looking at each other, talking about what to have for lunch after the inauguration, or just starring ahead unhearing, waiting for the real words to be spoken. We were included among the real words, and everyone heard.
For whatever smalls gains we've made in the last few years, this is a big deal. It is a huge acknowledgement. For the first time, throughout the primaries, throughout the campaigning, the conventions, and the election, I felt like a part of the process. Yes, I voted; everyone votes and we're all "part of the process." But it is one thing to cast your vote and know that no one cares about your concerns, and something else to cast it and feel like your voice might actually be heard.
Apparently, Obama heard our voice, and that he took the time and made the effort to acknowledge us--during this historical moment, where African Americans are finally getting what is theirs--to say to us that, finally, we exist.
This is a big deal. What happens in policy and what happens legislatively, among people who despise us and wish we'd do nothing more than disappear back into the woodwork of society, is another matter. But, for us, we now know that someone is listening, and not just someone--our President, and this time it's in a way that previous presidents haven't tried. We all remember Bush 41:
"I don't know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God."What we heard yesterday is a far, far cry from that.
Yes, this is a big deal, and, to me, I think this should enable us to think differently, and more strongly, about our activism. We are continually told we should shut up, even amongst our own. It's been easy for people to tell us this, because they had power and popular opinion on their side. They knew no one was listening to us. Now someone is, and this should be viewed not as finally reaching our destination--as much of a milestone as that word at that moment was--but as a moment into which we can read encouragement.
Speak loudly, godless folk. Someone is finally listening.