The moments of pall expected to hover over the National Mall during the inauguration of Joseph R. Biden Jr. as the 46th president of the United States were essentially dispelled by his uplifting speech and glorious musical presentations. With thousands of National Guard troops stationed around the Capitol, a pandemic that has taken more than 400,000 American lives, and economic distress everywhere apparent, it was not the best circumstances for celebration; even so, there were heartfelt occasions Wednesday, Jan. 20 for Biden and Kamala Harris, the nation’s first woman of color to serve as vice president.
Twice during his inaugural address President Joe Biden mentioned his Vice President Kamala Harris––the first female, first Black and first South Asian to hold the office. “Here we stand, looking out on the great mall where Dr. King spoke of his dream,” Biden said. “Here we stand where, 108 years ago at another inaugural, thousands of protesters tried to block brave women marching for the right to vote. And today, we mark the swearing of the first woman in American history elected to national office, Vice President Kamala Harris. Don’t tell me things can’t change!”
Harris, 56, and the 49th vice president of the U.S., was sworn in by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina on the Supreme Court. It was a significant moment in American history, and Harris was as poised and focused as ever.
President Biden’s 22-minute inaugural address resonated with unity and truth, and there was no way to miss his emphasis on truth given the four years of lying by the previous administration. No, Trump was nowhere to be seen having left the city in advance of the ceremonies on Capitol Hill where he had egged on mob violence. And where was Clarence Thomas?
Along with his repeated call for unity, Biden wasn’t five minutes into his speech before striking a chord that certainly resonated for Black Americans. “Millions of jobs have been lost, hundreds of thousands of businesses closed, a cry for racial justice some 400 years in the making moves us. The dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer.”
He would return to this theme toward the close of his speech, underscoring his concern about truth and justice. “Folks,” he said, “this is a time of testing. We face an attack on our democracy and on truth; a raging virus, growing inequity, the sting of systemic racism, a climate in crisis; America’s role in the world. Any one of these would be enough to challenge us in profound ways. But the fact is, we face them all at once. Presenting this nation with one of the gravest responsibilities we’ve had. Now we’re going to be tested.”
That testing became imminent months before he took office, and they will be even more evident as the elected officials get back to work and decide on what to do with the outgoing Trump’s impeachment.
But that piece of business was only mildly referenced and perhaps even put on hold when Lady Gaga, her gown a spectacle, Jennifer Lopez, Garth Brooks, and the young poet Amanda Gorman commanded the microphone. Gaga’s version of the national anthem was far tamer than her outfit, and Lopez prefaced her rendition of “America the Beautiful” with Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”
Gorman, 22, is the youngest poet laureate to deliver a poem at an inauguration, and like those who preceded her, democracy was a key word in her poem “The Hill We Climb.” One stanza captured the essence of the poem—“We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it/would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy/and this effort very nearly succeeded. But while democracy can be periodically delayed/it can never be permanently defeated. In this truth, in this faith, we trust. For while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us.”
Her words echoed what Biden had said earlier. “This is democracy’s day,” he intoned, “a day of history and hope, of renewal and resolve. Through a crucible for the ages, America has been tested anew. And America has risen to the challenge. Today we celebrate the triumph, not of a candidate, but of a cause, the cause of democracy. The people, the will of the people, has been heard, and the will of the people has been heeded.”
With guests and dignitaries adorned with masks, including three former presidents and their wives—and Michelle Obama was never more dressed for the occasion—it was an inauguration that will stand out from all the other 58, not only for the pandemic but for a man who had tried twice before to win the Oval Office and a woman, yes, a Black woman as vice president.
When Biden asked for a moment of silence to honor the thousands who had perished from the coronavirus, the solemnity returned, but come evening it will be pushed farther aside as the ceremony continues in song and cheer.