WASHINGTON — At 23 degrees Fahrenheit with a slight breeze, Washington was cold. But that did not deter the Elis traveling with Yale’s Afro-American Cultural Center from gathering here Tuesday morning on the National Mall to witness the inauguration of President Barack Obama.
For the black Elis who spent seven hours standing on the Mall in sub-freezing weather to watch the ceremony, the inauguration of America’s first African-American president carried special significance. Beyond the expected excitement and awe, these students said that attending the inauguration — and reflecting on its historic implications — was a deeply moving and personal experience.
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So much so, in fact, that after President Obama’s speech, many students had difficulty expressing their emotions.
Just 60 students, of whom roughly 40 were black, took advantage of the 100 bus seats the Af-Am House made available to allow students to attend the inauguration. Excitement, which initially ran high on the bus, gave way to fatigue upon arriving in bitter-cold Washington at sunrise Tuesday morning, before rising ultimately to a fever pitch of enthusiasm as Obama took the stage shortly before noon.
And throughout the morning, students were eager to discuss their sentiments and reasons for going.
Hyatt Howard ’11, who spent Monday commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. Day with his grandmother and aunt, said he talked with his grandmother about the historical significance of the inauguration. She, he said, could not stop repeating the fact that her grandson was going to see the inauguration.
And indeed, the day’s significance transcended generational differences.
One student, Antonio Ingram ’11, said he felt he was going to Washington “almost as a proxy for my grandma.” And another student, Daniel Esannason ’11, commented, “It’s a story I could tell my grandchildren when I’m an old man.”
Yet despite the belief that they were witnessing history in the making, many students shared a profound inability to express their feelings.
Laurika Harris-Kaye ’11 said she had never flown an American flag before Tuesday. But when attendees handed out free flags to the crowd on the Mall, she felt compelled to take one. Because she was so inspired by Obama’s speech, she said she was going to keep the flag as a memento of her experience.
She was not alone in her sentiments. As Amy Jones ’09 put it, “You just want to document every little thing.”
As Obama gave his address, one word was on everybody’s lips: “inspiring.”
“I feel like he personally called on me as an American citizen to deliver a service to my country,” Howard said. “To see him on the stage was to understand history in context.”
When asked what he thought of the speech, Esannason paused, and then replied with six short words.
“Awesome — defining factor in my life.”