Celebrating the Dream

“This little light of mine,” a swell of voices rang out over darkness twinkling with red, white, and blue lights. “I’m gonna let it shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.” The DuSable Museum of African American History Theater was full to the brim with bodies and feeling as visitors sang the spiritual and waved glow sticks in celebration after President Obama’s inauguration speech.

DuSable’s inauguration ceremony, “Celebrate the Dream,” was steeped in equal parts historical reverence and euphoria. The face of Martin Luther King Jr. was prominently displayed at both sides of the stage and James Weldon Johnson’s “Negro National Anthem” was sung; the program included a “Historical Guest List” that imagined an inaugural ball full of prominent African-American figures, from George Washington Carver to Rosa Parks to Jimi Hendrix. Dr. Stephanie Davenport kicked off the ceremony with an African libation, and performers Malik Camora and Joshua Alexander gave an African salute of drumming and dancing after the speech. Obama, sometimes called the post-racial candidate, was firmly placed in a racial narrative here. His election was presented as the culmination of African-Americans’ long and storied journey that started on the coasts of Africa, passed through Selma and Montgomery, and has finally made its way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

One of the attendees, Celestine Willis, originally had other plans for Inauguration Day. “I planned two years ago to be at Inauguration,” she said. “But I had a heart attack on December 6 and things changed for me.” Willis, like many others, expressed a mix of emotions: concern about the economy, a feeling of historical fulfillment, a guiding sense of hope, and a need for solidarity. “Being an African-American woman and an African-American woman with a disability, I understand struggle,” she said. “I understand pulling together. I understand community and grassroots support. I think he’s going to ask us [to pull together] today. He’s only one person–we’re all going to have to do this together.”

To close the event, Master of Ceremony Oba William King led the song “I Love My People.” The crowd sang of celebrating African-American self-worth. Before exiting the stage for the last time, King broke into spontaneous dance. “Obama is president! Obama is president! Obama is president! Woo, I can’t believe it.”