SOUTHEASTERN NC — All eyes were on America as the transition of power from one president to another went smoothly amid heightened concerns of danger from potential domestic terrorism. Security was ramped up at the Capitol and across DC for the 46th Presidential Inauguration after an angry mob of Trump supporters raided the Senate chambers a short two weeks ago.
Even though soldiers (15,000) outnumbered pared-down crowds (2,000), the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris continued as planned — though it looked much different in the time of Covid-19.
“It felt like a small wedding,” described Rebecca Trammel, local organizer and activist, as well as founder of Community Conversations New Hanover County Schools, who tuned in Wednesday, Jan. 20. “I saw an intimate, beautiful celebration of the ideals that we hold most dear as Americans — solidarity, diversity, humanity, faith — all on display.”
Thousands of flags waved across the National Mall where a sea of heads normally would stand to watch the ceremonious pomp and circumstance of a diverse group of A-listers — Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Garth Brooks — and newcomers. 22-year-old poet Amanda Gorman, the youngest in inaugural history, delivered a spoken-word piece, “The Hill We Climb.” A Black female fire captain, Andrea Hall, recited the Pledge of Allegiance.
Former presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and George Bush sat among the Biden and Harris families, and members of the Congress and Senate to hear a new president address the nation with unity and hope instead of division and discord.
“When I heard President Biden speak compelling words of wisdom and healing that is when I realized this was really happening,” Trammel added. “We did it! We won. We, as Americans, won together — and I wept.”
Local public servants responded to the swearing-in of the new administration, including Republican David Rouzer. Just two weeks ago Rouzer was among more than 100 representatives objecting to the Electoral College’s certification of Biden as president.
“As the clouds and the snow flurries departed and the sun took their place, the peaceful transition of power occurred at this inauguration just as it has since our Founding,” Rouzer said in a press release. “With the favor of God’s hand, our institutions endure even during tumultuous times. I congratulate President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris and wish them well with the new responsibilities their offices bring.”
The inauguration was the yin to the Capitol insurrection’s yang. It didn’t go unnoticed from Qailinn Bowen, either, who serves on the board of Med North Health Center, and is a member of New Hanover for All and Carolina Federation NHC.
“Since January 6th of this year, there’s been a lot of talk about the attack on our democracy and how the U.S serves as a blueprint for how democracy should be governed,” Bowen said. “I couldn’t help but feel like that is such an oxymoron. How the land of freedom and opportunity hasn’t been afforded to our most marginalized people.”
Black people rallied for the 2020 election unlike any other year to help Biden win with 279 Electoral College votes to Trump’s 214. 150 million ballots were cast, smashing election records over 120 years. The AP reported Black voters made up 11% of the national electorate. According to the Brookings Institution of Education, they represented more than 50% of all Democratic voters in Georgia, 20% in Michigan, and 21% in Pennsylvania — all battleground states.
“I feel like this is a special day for the sisters who stepped up to stop what we felt was an existential threat,” Trammel wrote in an email. “That is why we worked so hard. We didn’t know how we would survive — our loved ones might not survive another four years. It was from hurt and hope, despair and desperation that we became determined that democracy could not be denied and we had to prevail.”
She added: “I’m secretly relishing in this moment, just knowing that I might not be Stacey Abrams or Kamala Harris but I did my part. I took my place in the American story—not just to create a better world for me, or people who look like me, but for us all.”
The first Madame Vice President
For many, the most monumental moment of the day came when Justice Sonia Sotomayer administered the oath to the first Black, South Asian-American woman elected to the second-highest office in the nation. Harris made history but more so secured a culturally significant role as much-needed representation for Black and brown youth and young women and girls everywhere.
It’s part of a diverse nation that has always needed more attention, according to Democrat representative Deborah Butler.
“Everyone has a contribution to make to this society,” she told Port City Daily, “but when those in positions of power and authority are uniformly white and male, it has a dispiriting effect on anyone not so situated and prevents people from even trying to participate or contribute. And we are diminished accordingly. So, inclusion and diversity lifts and enriches us all and today’s inauguration of the first woman, and a woman of color at that, elected to a national position opens the door through which many more women will walk.”
To Trammel, diverse perspectives in leadership equate to a better balance of results for the populace. Harris will be bringing solutions to her role in government borne of personal experiences that affect a different sector of the U.S. Of the 328,239,523 people in the United States, 13.4% (43,984,096) are Black or African American, 5.9% (19,366,131) Asian and 50.8% women (166,745,677).
“We know that Black children who have at least one Black teacher by the third grade are 13% more likely to enroll in college/university,” Trammel compared. “Representation is not only important for the Black community (we definitely needed a ‘W’ after last year!), but it is important for the majority culture to see a Black woman in a place of high visibility and leadership.”
Women across the nation donned pearls in honor of Harris’ inauguration — an homage to her own pearl necklace, symbolic of the sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha, from when she attended Howard University. The private historically black university sent their marching band to escort the newly minted vice president along the inauguration’s parade route.
New Hanover County for All’s southeastern regional organizer Ashley Daniels said she felt less celebratory and perhaps more introspective as she concentrated on the meaning of the ceremony. When Harris took the oath, she admitted choking up, becoming overwhelmed with emotion.
“By just the weight of what that moment meant, by the weight of us having this other individual out of office, what it meant for all these people who came before her, what it meant for a Black woman to be sworn into one of the highest offices in all the land. I felt it all in body and realized I can hold both truths: I can be concerned and excited,” Daniels said.
Bowen decided to watch the inauguration with her grandmother, who lived through years of discrimination when women and people of color did not even have the right to vote.
“In that aspect, it was pivotal and endearing,” Bowen said.
She also called it validating — a confirmation that women are and always have been stealth leaders.
“I see it everyday. I myself am an example of that,” Bowen said. “To have such a great nation, and up until yesterday never having a Black woman serve in one of its highest elected offices is telling to say the least. We’re playing catch-up in that aspect. It’s really audacious. For me, witnessing VP Kamala Harris being sworn in was less symbolic and more of an affirmative call to action to lean further into my role of leadership and to stand firm in my truth and purpose. A nation is only as great as the women who lead it.”
Biden chose 12 women, including Harris, to serve in his cabinet. That he chose a Black woman as vice president is a change in rank that Trammel said other leaders need to take notice of and pursue further.
“Joe Biden, as a white man in America, decided to choose the best person for the job,” she explained, “Harris didn’t break the mold; Joe Biden did when he decided not to overlook her ability and the needs of the country and reserve the seat for another white man for the sake of familiarity. I hope this becomes the norm. . . . I hope that white men see themselves in Joe.”
Though Trammel made it clear she is happy about the outcome of the election, she also said she’s aware it doesn’t undo what lies in the underbelly of the nation.
“I also have apprehension,” she said. “We see this phenomenon called ‘white rage’ in America. Predictably, when we see Black success — like Wilmington of 1897 or Black Wall Street or the election of President Obama — there is a desperate and even response of fear and insecurity from those poisoned by delusions of White supremacy (we are all equal) who just cannot tolerate the disruption to their social hierarchy.”
Getting down to business
The new administration wasted no time getting to work. Within hours of being sworn in, President Biden signed 17 executive orders — some undoing a few of the previous administration’s actions, including stopping funds for the border wall, reversing travel bans on Muslim countries, rejoining the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization. He also extended the eviction and foreclosure moratorium, continued the pause on student loans, and is taking action to advance racial equity.
Daniels said Biden’s immediacy to act was hopeful and heartening. Daniels has been a social and environmental justice activist in Wilmington over the last decade or so.
“There is going to be work,” she said. “But the work is going to be on much more hospitable soil, so it feels more approachable to go to this mountain where we are trying to get environmental justice, where we are trying to get justice for immigrants, where we are trying to get some reform in our injustice system — it feels like a lot more hospitable soil than where we just came from.”
Biden also set a precedent that this administration will tackle Covid-19 more consciously and carefully. He put into effect a mask mandate when entering any federal building and will require Covid-19 tests of anyone entering White House grounds. National outlets are reporting he will sign 10 more orders on Jan. 21 addressing vaccinations across the states.
“I believe that the new administration in Washington will focus on science and truth and will shy away from incendiary and political speech,” Butler said. “That should bring the temperature down and help us turn our attention to the great challenges that face us as a nation.”
National reports are showing Biden already pressed his administration to use a dignified tone in an effort to bring back decorum to the public office. In fact, he told staffers and appointees at their swearing-in that if they don’t treat each other with respect, “I will fire you on the spot,” he iterated.
“As a public servant, I am keenly aware that words and behavior matter,” representative Butler said. “I believe there is a responsibility to be judicious and thoughtful when you speak. And so, for me, as I listened to the speeches of our new leadership, and they repeatedly spoke of taking responsibility and of unity without a hint of finger-pointing, I thought, ‘Wow, that refreshing.’ It’s called leadership.”
While Daniels is happy the nation is being steered in a different direction, she thinks about people still incarcerated during Covid, immigrant children still in cages, and those still affected by the last four years. Even if it’s a more peaceful transition, with a seemingly accommodating administration, it doesn’t discount what’s still left to surmount.
“There is indeed work ahead,” Daniels said trepidatiously, “so now we strategize how to best push this administration toward things we need for our people.”
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