12 years later, still hopeful, if more clear-eyed about it all | Opinion

January 20, 2021 6:00 am

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 18: The U.S Capitol Building is prepared for the inaugural ceremonies for President-elect Joe Biden as American flags are placed in the ground on the National Mall on January 18, 2021 in Washington, DC. The approximately 191,500 U.S. flags will cover part of the National Mall and will represent the American people who are unable to travel to Washington, DC for the inauguration. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

Twelve years ago this week, I attended the inauguration of President Barack Obama. I traveled with two friends with whom I’d made a pact during long days of door-knocking for Obama and dozens of legislative and local candidates, many of whom rode the Democratic wave into office. Our pact was simple and reflected the seemingly boundless optimism of that campaign: if Obama won, we would find a way to be in D.C. on Inauguration Day.

So there we were, part of the throngs of people pouring in from across the nation and the world. We had barely managed to find flights before they sold out, and there wasn’t a hotel room to be found for miles, so we bunked for the night with friends of my friend. (The house full of men in their late twenties and early thirties we stayed with is another story for another day.) We landed in the nation’s Capitol barely eighteen hours before the new President-elect would take the oath of office.

Like the hundreds of thousands who descended on Washington that week, I was flushed with the exhilaration of having played a tiny role in that historic election, fueled with the conviction that America had entered a new era, one that would pave the way for a better life for people across the country.

People ask what it was like to be there that day, a witness to history. I tell them it was a blur of images and impressions, sounds and sights. The temperature was frigid, but people were warmed by a mix of emotions and pride. The crowds were thick, the Metro insanely crowded by 4:00 AM, and security ranging from the D.C. police to the National Guard were visible and friendly. 

There is one moment that stands out even now, a dozen years later. At the end of the ceremony, the Marine Band played the “Star Spangled Banner,” the piercing brass horns sounding the notes so familiar we often take it for granted. Growing up in a middle-class Midwestern family taught me to respect the flag and the anthem, but I confess — like many others — to sometimes half-singing along to a tune that none but the most talented voices ever managed to sing well (those high notes!) or fidgeting with impatience for the song to end so we could get to the main event, whether a kickoff or the first pitch.

But not this time. The moment those first notes rang out, the voices of more than a million people surrounding me rang out, too. Voices of people who had all gathered on the National Mall, coming to this place at this time for their own unique and personal reasons. To say we belted it out is an understatement. Together we sang at the top of our lungs, the sound rising through the cold air and joining together in what felt to me at the time like a sacred hymn of hope and a promise fulfilled. It was beautiful and thrilling.

We’ve come a long way since that day on the Mall. Eight years later I watched a new president take an oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” We saw how that turned out. The intervening years have been fraught with political divisiveness that’s rendered even the most hopeful among us disappointed and cynical about the power of politics to be a force for good. It revealed the naive lens I viewed the world through, a lens tinged with privilege I had not yet come to terms with, and that I continue to reckon with. It left many of us distrustful of the institutions that govern us and others fearful that the breach might not be mended, despairing that the ideals of America may ever be achieved.

And yet, given the choice between cynicism and hope, I continue to bend towards hope. I can’t help it.

The America of 2021 is the same America that existed when I stood on the National Mall in January 2009. A messy, complicated and contradictory place, where we hold up the ideals of equality and opportunity while simultaneously recognizing those ideals have never been fully met. A country that elected the first Black president and eight years later elected a craven person who used disinformation as currency to promote a worldview of white supremacy and corruption. The same nation where people you care for can make choices with which you deeply disagree, but whom you can still hold dear as you pray for their redemption and your own.

Looking back on those voices singing the anthem twelve years ago, I realize I was wrong about what I thought it meant. I no longer believe we were singing of a promise fulfilled. I believe instead we were singing of a promise still to come. That we were serenading an imperfect victory, another chapter in an unfinished story. I believe the voices lifted in unison that day were — and are — part of an enduring refrain from people who believe that with steadfast effort, conviction, organization and a willingness to stand alongside, rather than against each other, we can birth that promise into being.

The chilling images of the past weeks have shown this nation’s unfolding story will continue to test us. There is no doubt the path forward toward justice and healing will continue exposing deep wounds and confounding contradictions as America continues its tortured journey towards achieving its real promise: To become a nation that truly embraces “a more perfect union” for all.

Despite disappointments and setbacks, I still believe in that promise. On Wednesday at noon I’ll be watching as a new president takes the oath of office, a man forged in equal parts by success and grief, girded by experience and a lifetime of service. And when the band strikes up the “Star Spangled Banner” I’ll be singing along.

I don’t think I’ll be alone.

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Charlene Briner
Charlene Briner

Charlene Briner lives in Saint Paul. She is a storyteller, mother of three adult sons and formerly served as deputy commissioner at both the Minnesota Department of Education and the Minnesota Department of Human Services.