I spiked the ball way too early. It was January 20, 2009, and I was sitting on makeshift bleachers inside the Children's Museum of Memphis for a live viewing of Barack Obama's inauguration as the 44th president of the United States. My daughter, Sofia, was there with her 4th-grade class from Grahamwood Elementary, seated in a larger section for other Shelby County children. She was four months shy of her 10th birthday, but Sofia knew she was witnessing a moment. I knew we were witnessing a moment.
I chuckled — much of the adult audience chuckled — when Chief Justice John Roberts stumbled in reciting the oath of office Mr. Obama was to repeat. Hey, the Chief Justice was witnessing a moment. At the conclusion of President Obama's inspiring speech — so many delivered before that moment, and so many delivered since — I stood up and tightly hugged the person next to me, a complete stranger. An African-American woman smiling, like me, to hold back the tears. It was a moment.
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And I spiked the ball. My family actually blew out candles that night on a cake with "Obama" and blue stars scripted in frosting. I never said it out loud, but I convinced myself that America had finally arrived at a place where racism could be swept into the dustbin of human failures, our country's original sin finally exorcised, the symbol being an eloquent, composed, funny, and compassionate 47-year-old man whose father was Kenyan. A black man was president of the United States. Turns out there was, in fact, an American dream. One for all of us.
Yet somehow we're here, in June 2020, a month history will record as the first in which an American president sprayed chemicals to disperse a crowd of Americans, then built a fence around the White House. The atrocity of Donald Trump's presidency isn't painful for who he is: a hopelessly deficient thinker, a liar and narcissist, and a racist who doesn't recognize the reasons for his racism. No, it's the fact that a monster like Trump could be elected via the experiment in democracy we call the United States. Whatever we gained on January 20, 2009 — the energy within every hug shared that day — has been leg-swept by forces that, quite literally, threaten the democratic framework of our country.
Inspiration is there, though. And hope, that human trait President Obama identified as audacious. Thousands of Americans have taken to city streets all across the country — during a pandemic — to say we, as a people, have had enough, that cruelty toward any American is cruelty toward all of us. We've had enough. And don't expect the protests to "die down," like others we've seen after one unarmed black man was killed or another. George Floyd is this century's Emmett Till. Just as Till's 1955 lynching added booster fuel to the American civil rights movement, Floyd's murder will change policing in America. I'm not sure if she coined the phrase herself, but I love an expression my sister (in Seattle) recently shared: "Respect existence, or expect resistance."
Change is coming. Matter of fact, it's already happened. Not one, but four white police officers are facing charges in Floyd's death. "Black Lives Matter" can be read from outer space on a Washington D.C. street that leads to the White House. As for the current commander in chief, military officials past and present are speaking openly and publicly against Trump's unhinged approach to what he calls law and order.
January 20, 2009 seems so very long ago. I don't regret my joy that day. I only regret leaping to conclusions our country wasn't ready to confirm. But we're getting there. And I'm prepared to continue the march toward a promised land — however we might define it — even if I do so wearing a mask.
Frank Murtaugh is managing editor of Memphis magazine. He writes about sports for the Flyer.