You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Relief, optimism, foreboding: Black Americans feel mixed emotions on Inauguration Day

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/20/2021 Sydney Trent

From the moment in June 2015 when Donald Trump glided down a golden escalator in Trump Tower to announce his presidential candidacy, James Hudson saw what was coming. That’s because as an older African American, he’d been there before.

Hudson, 81, had grown up in segregated Tallahassee. He knew the racism of the burning cross and the racism of Obama birtherism, and he said he knew a racist when he saw one.

So while early on much of White America and the media were in denial that a brash and shallow reality TV star could ever become president, Hudson and older generations of Black people saw Trump clearly as the threat he was. The next four years were as horrifying as they were wholly predictable; the stakes in the election in November felt nauseatingly high.

“We are at an inflection point of the kind that Lincoln and Roosevelt faced,” said Hudson, a retired lawyer and investment banker who served in the first Obama-Biden administration as director of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in London. “We could have gone really, really backwards if Trump were successful, and the impact of going backwards would have been absolutely devastating to African Americans.”

As President Biden and Vice President Harris took their oaths of office on Wednesday, Hudson’s relief was proportionate to his earlier fears. Like many Black people, especially those born before or directly after the civil rights movement, Hudson said he knew from the start of the 2020 campaign that “this is Biden’s moment.”

“The times make the president, and he is right now the right person for the job,” said Hudson, who lives in Washington. Biden’s selection of Harris as the first Black, first Asian American and first female vice president has only served to solidify this belief.

Many Black Americans share Hudson’s great optimism. And yet that faith in the future — deeply ingrained in a people forced to battle racism to succeed — is tempered with a desire for justice, especially after the acts of insurrection at the Capitol that Trump’s rhetoric helped instigate on Jan. 6. Some also carry a deep sense of trepidation that the demons of white supremacy unleashed in the riot and throughout Trump’s tenure will not so easily be brought to heel. There is danger in unifying prematurely before violent lawbreakers have been brought to account, they said.

Michelle Gipson has found herself thinking about Reconstruction, the 12-year period after the Civil War in which efforts were made to redress the ills of slavery and to reintegrate the Confederate states. It ended when Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes reached a compromise with Southern Democrats in Congress in 1876. In exchange for certification of his election, Hayes ended federal interference in the South, ushering in widespread disenfranchisement of African Americans and the Jim Crow era.

[Confronting the ghosts of racial terror in North Carolina]

Gipson worries that compromises between White politicians will be made again to the detriment of Black Americans, immigrants and others. “That prevailing sense of we have to do right by them even if they do wrong by us is not justice,” said Gipson, 48, a writer and digital publisher in Atlanta.

For her and many other Americans, the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol laid bare the inequality in policing, she said, with the mob of overwhelmingly White rioters receiving what many perceived as kid-glove treatment from law enforcement while Black Lives Matter protesters in the summer were confronted with riot gear and tear gas. “Who polices the police? I don’t think that question has been answered,” Gipson, who wants fast police reform, said.

Even so, Gipson said she feels “positive” about the new direction of the country. On Inauguration Day, she joined a national Zoom party hosted by Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority to celebrate as her AKA sister Harris took the oath. “I’ve spent four years being sad and confused. . . . We have to remain prayerful that four years from now the country will look completely different,” she said.

Jack Thomas, a former assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, has confidence that the rioters will be prosecuted and white supremacists bent on racial violence will be rooted out if Merrick Garland is confirmed as U.S. attorney general. After working for 40 years in the Justice Department and serving with Garland, “I am overjoyed about what I see for the department,” said Thomas, 73, a lawyer in Richmond.

“There is an old saying about the law,” he said. “The wheels of justice grind slowly, but they grind fine . . . Merrick is fair and just and good, and I think he will move slowly, but he will set the department on the right track, doing the people’s business and not the president’s.”

Thomas is encouraged by the diversity of Biden’s Cabinet nominees and his appointees. “A Native American running the Department of the Interior? Oh, man,” he said. “The diversity of the conversation I imagine will go on in the Biden-Harris Cabinet will be one that understands the various communities in America. . . . You can’t tell me that Thurgood Marshall didn’t contribute greatly to the discourse in the Supreme Court when he was there.”

Thomas was returning from a medical treatment when Biden and Harris took their oaths. When he arrived home, he and his wife filled their glasses with Martinelli’s apple cider and raised “a tall glass of joy and health to them, wishing them every success because America needs it.”

Theresa Lewis is concerned about what might come next. Too much has happened to be fully relieved, she said. She was anxious that Trump could win practically up to the minute he lost and then not entirely sure that he and his supporters wouldn’t snatch victory from the jaws of defeat after stacking the Supreme Court with conservatives. “I felt it was a life-or-death thing,” said Lewis, 48, an assistant middle school principal in Woodbridge, Va. “I don’t even have the imagination to think of the things he could have done to harm people.”

The past four years have taken a toll on her, she said. Recently, she was walking across the grocery store parking lot to her car when she spotted a police officer sitting in a cruiser. She was surprised to feel a wave of unease. “The way Trump celebrated the police and told them to be rough with people, that makes me scared,” she said.

Even now, as she anticipates that Biden and Harris will be inclusive in their leadership of the country, Lewis describes a “sense of foreboding” about what lies ahead given the attack at the Capitol. “I worry every time they go out in the public sphere that something is going to happen to them,” she said. “I’m happy and relieved they won, but I’m still worried now that violence has been unleashed.”

Alton Tucker is a full-on optimist. He expects Biden and Harris to vastly improve the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine to prevent the virus that has disproportionately killed African Americans. He also thinks that Biden’s deep experience in the U.S. Senate will help him persuade Congress to do much of his will.

Tucker, a retired family physician in Manassas, is not naive. The 74-year-old said he also knows a racist when he sees one. But Biden and Harris are “caring people. . . . When they speak you can feel it, and they have those gifts that will help us heal after all that has happened,” he said.

He recalled volunteering for the first Obama-Biden run. When the news of victory came into the campaign office in Triangle, Va., that night in 2008, “it was just tremendous.” A Black woman in her 90s turned to him and said, “A colored man is going to be president?” On Inauguration Day, Tucker and his wife shivered on the Mall to watch history unfold.

And yet, Tucker views the Biden-Harris inauguration as equal to that once-in-many-lifetimes event. “That’s because of what we all went through these past four years to get here,” he said. “ . . . When you think about all of these people from all walks of life, those who were discriminated against and those who had been vilified and denied opportunities. It was a coalition of all these people and others coming together to make this happen.”

The next four years, he said, “are not going to be easy at all, but I am hopeful.”

a person standing posing for the camera: Theresa Lewis, 48, in her office in November 2020 at a Woodbridge middle school, where she is an assistant principal. © Theresa Lewis/Theresa Lewis Theresa Lewis, 48, in her office in November 2020 at a Woodbridge middle school, where she is an assistant principal.
AdChoices
AdChoices

More from The Washington Post

The Washington Post
The Washington Post
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon