article

01.20.09

Lucky Number 44

Watching the Obama inaugural from Upper Manhattan.

I was on the move all morning. I left Omaha at five o’clock in the morning, arrived in Minneapolis at six-thirty, got to Manhattan at ten-thirty, drove across 125th Street at eleven, dumped my suitcase in my office at Columbia Law School at 11:30, was standing in the Columbia campus quad just in time for Nancy Pelosi’s introduction.

The morning was like being swept along on a cushion of good will. In Omaha, I got a call from a friend who had actual seats on the podium in D.C. She described it as being "just breathtaking...The sun coming up over the mall....All these people...There’s never been anything like this." By the time I got to Minneapolis, there were gaggles of people gathered round the televisions in the airport bars and coffee shops. In Manhattan, my car crept past the Harlem Office Building because there were so many people gathered in the plaza. Police barriers had narrowed 125th Street, fire trucks were parked protectively, and I rolled down the windows to hear the blared, euphoric commentary. In the law school, things have never seemed so merrily unlitigious and downright cosy. Trays of brownies and cookies in lobby, large urns of Starbucks coffee and hot chocolate, crowds of professors, students, staff, and maintenance workers gathered round two large flatscreens. In the quad, every spot with a view was packed. The Jumbotron was set up facing Alma Mater, the crowds nestled round her like chicks round a bronze mother hen.

Aretha Franklin’s version of "My Country ‘Tis of Thee" was thrilling, even though, as someone next to me observed, "That thing on her head looked like it was large enough to take flight and bring down an airplane."

Biden’s oath sounded strong and eager. He spoke so rapidly and happily that at moments it seemed as though he were a little ahead of Justice Stevens. Then it was "I, Barack Hussein Obama’s” turn, at the end of which everyone applauded—a strange, wonderful, muffled roar of mittened and hands clapping in the cold. Columbia-blue pom-poms waved in the frosty air, and a child tossed his red gloves up to the sky over and over again. Couples kissed and the sound of church bells from all directions throbbed in the distance. Alma Mater positively glowed with pride. Then we all walked forward into the light.

Patricia J. Williams has been published widely in the areas of race, gender, and law, and on other issues of legal theory and legal writing. Her books include The Alchemy of Race and Rights; The Rooster's Egg; and Seeing a ColorBlind Future: The Paradox of Race. She is a also a columnist for The Nation.