Picturing Obama

The New Haven Museum and Yale University created a beautiful town-gown moment last night. “Picturing Obama: New Haven Reflects on the Inaugural” was billed as “an evening of commentary, reflection and pictures from the largest public gathering in American history.” The evening was all that it was billed to be and more, despite some technical problems.

Professor of American Studies Matthew Davidson led off with a colorful description of his day photographing faces in the crowd and his sense of deep reverence for the occasion.

James Bowers, an attorney and veteran of the civil rights movement, remarked that he saw President Obama’s seating as the first African American president as one of two bookends in the movement. The other was the decision in Brown vs. Board of Education. As a resident of South Carolina, Bowers had endured the sting of Jim Crow and has watched the country evolve in the 55 years between the two events. Bowers helped integrate South Carolina’s university system and was thus one of the people who benefitted from the work of John Hope Franklin.

A man who was half of my reason for attending was the next speaker. I met the brilliant David Blight about seven years ago when I was working on a special issue of the Hartford Courant’s now-defunct Northeast Magazine, Complicity: How Connecticut Chained Itself to Slavery.” He directs the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance & Abolition. Despite its unwieldy title, its work as added untold and offered support and outreach for the Courant’s effort. The two institutions spread the word about how Connecticut’s ships and mills and farms supported chattel slavery up to the Civil War.

Here’s a taste of David Blight’s scholarship and historical insight from the Boston Globe.

He is as brilliant a speaker as he is a writer. He captured his passion for the subject at hand in a single incident that occurred about a year ago. He couldn’t connect to the internet at his hotel when Obama delivered the speech on race, so Blight went to the reception desk where he commandeered a computer and stood for an hour and a half, handwriting the text of the speech. I know most of us would have said, “Well, I’ll wait till I get home.” Not David Blight.

Graduate student Myra Jones-Taylor demonstrated her own passion (and her absolute residence in the digital age) with her description of updating her Facebook page moment to moment, sending endless tweets, and taking some 750 photos, a task she shared with a friend. Her talk suffered from the fact that none of those photos were visible because of lack of communication among various pieces of equipment. Nevertheless, she had everyone laughing about three grown women running around Washington with a blowup Obama doll, whose photo adorned a wall of the museum. She and her friends took Obama Doll with them because she wants her infant nephew, for whom the doll is intended, to know that the doll was present at the inauguration. The travels of Obama Doll made me think of Flat Stanley. He’s a great teaching vehicle, and at this point better traveled than all of the adults gathered in the room last night. Myra should consider sending Obama Doll on similar adventures until her nephew is old enough to appreciate her gift.

Then came the other half of my reason for venturing out on a foggy, rainy night into a city where finding parking is like finding a typewriter at a tech convention. Poet, essayist, professor, and playwright Elizabeth Alexander, (see “In Praise of Elizabeth Alexander,” December 22, 2008) who wrote and delivered the “occasional” poem at the inaugural, said she does not take photographs. Instead she creates word pictures, and the images she shared with us last night were as graphic and as immediate as any last night’s the photos. Elizaberh painted a word portrait about waking up at 4:30 a.m. to the sound of people walking with almost military precision to the Mall. She spoke of the incredible silence that pervaded the same space during the ceremonies. She said she would have taken a picture of all the African American women present: Myrlie Evers, who started to keen when the president was sworn in; the self-contained Aretha Franklin; even the young poised Secret Service agent who was guarding the former presidents in attendance. I know another black woman may not have been visible to those of us on this plane but who was very much present that day and singing hosannas as Elizabeth delivered her poem and as Barack took the oath. That woman was Ann Petry, who loved Elizabeth and was awed and uplifted by her brilliance.

Thank you, Yale, and thank you, New Haven, for letting me relive one of the seminal days of my life. May town and gown celebrate many more such events.

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