Starra Clarke, an English Literature student and regular BXtra contributor, reflects on the diversity of President Biden’s inauguration and its broader cultural significance.
6 min read.
“But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.”
Séamus Heaney, Irish Poet.
In 2008, my mam and I watched Barack Obama win the presidential election. At 4:00am, we danced around the living room of our two-up, two-down with a glass of Möet in hand, knowing that we were witnessing history in the making. Sometimes I forget how much time has passed since that day, but sitting here, watching Joe Biden’s inauguration, it is clear that we are living in a very different world than the one we lived in back then. Only two weeks ago a mob of violent Tr**p supporters stormed the United States Capitol. The far-right, anti-government groups acted upon the provocation of the former president on his now-defunct Twitter page, and ultimately led to his second impeachment trial. The constant threat of violence has cast a dark cloud over the lead-up to the inauguration, but now, as Lady Gaga belts out an impressive rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner (I really am typing this in real time!), it’s clear that statements are being made. The star-studded event is a stark contrast to the one that took place four years ago, and although COVID-19 has prevented the allowance of an audience, the support of mainstream figures is something that the Tr**p administration could not boast. His rallies were notoriously marked by musicians preventing him from using their music, while Biden’s inaugural event is peppered with A-list stars.
There are endless things that could be said about this event, but I wish to write about the reappearance of diversity. One only has to look at the audience, speakers, and performers to know that we are witnessing the beginning of the next era of the United States. Although we may wishfully hope that white supremacy will now take a back seat, unfortunately this can of racist worms cannot be easily disposed of. It can, however, be forced back underground, and judging by Biden’s initial executive orders, the shovels are in hand. In his first address as president, he acknowledged the USA’s history of colonization and genocide, recognising ‘a cry for racial justice some 400 years in the making’. Behind the façade of “The American Dream”, one must recognize the blood-stained events of the past (and the present), in order to hope for a better future.
During his speech, he also touched upon the work of Martin Luther King Jr, as well as that of the suffragettes. He noted that the United States is challenged by ‘the sting of systematic racism’ and called out white supremacy. He referenced the significance of Kamala Harris’s election and stated ‘don’t tell me things can’t change’. Indeed, Kamala Harris is a walking emblem of diversity, and her election as the first African-American, female Vice President of South-Asian descent represents the ability and willingness of the American people to welcome change. We are witnessing the creation of history, and Harris is a leading figure in this process. The Vice President’s arrival to the ceremony was made even more notable by her escort: Eugene Goodman, the capitol police officer who was promoted following his actions during the January 6th Capitol Hill insurrection. His promotion and role during the inauguration is a firm message from the administration that white supremacy will not prevail, and that law and order will resume.
However, you may be reading this asking, “what does it matter to me?” It is likely that whoever is reading this isn’t doing so from the USA, and may not think that the inauguration is significant on this side of the pond, but I beg to differ. Over the last four years, I have witnessed levels of racism that I never expected to see in my lifetime. I remember listening to a rendition of ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ at a Black Lives Matter protest, with images of American police using brutal force at similar protests strong in my mind. As a black, Irish woman, I recognised the privilege of being able to attend such a protest without fearing for my life, something that I know I would be unable to say at a protest in the USA. Regardless of your political allegiances, the normalization of police brutality is a fear-inducing, dystopian aspect of modern history. What was even scarier was the fact that this behaviour was continuously supported by the world’s most powerful leader. Therefore, the election of someone who condemns this behaviour is an indescribable relief. Furthermore, as a person who has been inspired by two female Irish Presidents and the first black US President, the election of Harris is incredibly uplifting. If the distribution of fear is global, then the distribution of hope must be global as well, and that is what this new administration symbolises.
I realise that things are probably starting to sound quite heavy, but I feel that it’s important to appreciate the true significance of diversity at this inauguration. During Jennifer Lopez’s performance this afternoon, she used the moment to proudly proclaim the final words of the pledge of allegiance in Spanish. Her ability to represent her heritage without fear of repercussion is an incredibly important moment (she also slipped in the lyrics to one of her own songs, which displays a level of confidence that I can only wish to achieve!). Prior to her performance, a history-making firefighter recited the full pledge of allegiance in both English and American Sign Language. As aforementioned, the National Anthem was sung by Lady Gaga, a leading advocate of the LGBTQIA+ community. National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman delivered an incredibly powerful poem, and proclaimed that ‘we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one’, a sentiment that was repeated throughout the day. The president acknowledged his own diverse heritage by quoting the words of Irish poet and Nobel laureate Séamus Heaney.
It is now 02:56 on Thursday morning, and I’m watching Katy Perry bring the inaugural concert to a close. The sheer power of such a multi-cultural, multi-lingual event caused me to shed more than a few happy tears over the course of the day. I truly feel a positive change is on the horizon, and I hope that this monumental occasion symbolises the beginning of a new, colourful era.