In my first semester at Bryn Mawr College, I took a freshman seminar entitled, "The Obama Phenomenon: Text, Ekphrasis, Hagiography, and Rhetoric in the Democratic Primary." In this class I read both of Obama's books, studied his speeches, and read several books about Obama in an effort to understand the craze, the man and the political depth and significance of his candidacy. My main take-away from the class and the election cycle was concern. When my classmates were still celebrating on Nov. 5, my excitement had changed to unease.
The "Obamamania" that had inspired the class was weighing on me; my fear was that people would be so excited with the election of their candidate that they would close the watchful eye that should always be kept on the government - that they would use the election of a man they trusted as a reason to abandon their rights and duties as citizens and become complacent. I was also nervous that Obama's words seemed to have resulted in an amorphous sense of inspiration rather than one that turned into action. Would the grassroots activities of the campaign continue in the implementation of policy? Would the people who had so fervently supported Obama during his campaign continue to participate in their own communities following his election? I feared expectations were so high for a savior-like Obama that, coupled with inaction from the people, there would be no way that Obama could possibly satisfy the prodigious goals expected of him, and then we would really have a disgruntled and disaffected public.
With my mind in a state of unease before the inauguration, Obama's speech could not have come at a better time for me. With his calming preacher's cadence, Obama acknowledged the exceptional work to be done, and more importantly, that all other American times of unrest were settled not by strong, swift, insightful government action, but by the dedication and service of every individual citizen. The address translated slippery and amorphous inspiration into tangible, necessary actions. The President thanked our military, and encouraged each American to be a service member in his or her own way. He reaffirmed our domestic and international commitment to human rights and respect, not only because we have the agency and duty, but because we can only be whole when every person is whole; we can only be free when every person is free, even if that means having conflicting beliefs. He redefined what it means to be a great America: It's not that we have the most power, but the most just cause; not that we have the biggest guns, but the strongest spirit. And that we choose which parts of the American spirit we embrace, that we "choose our better history," and continue creating it by resurrecting the productivity, creativity, resiliency, purpose, courage and humility that define the America we choose to be. The most important part of the inaugural address, and Obama's election in general, is the point that while we ought to choose these virtuous American traits, we must act on them to give them meaning.
For one of my projects in the Obama Phenomenon, I examined the election results by demographic breakdown. While classifying voters in this way is convenient and interesting, when I think about my own engagement in this election, demography seems horribly off mark. While pundits classify me as an 18-year-old female, I do not make my political decisions based on my age or my body. I make my political decisions based on my education, my personal philosophy, my passions. Barack Obama's election is significant to me not because I am young or because I am a woman, it is significant to me because of his focus on action. Fundamentally, I am what I do. I cannot identify as a student without studying, as an artist without producing art, as a sister without treating my brother as such, as an American without actively participating in my government, or as a human without working toward life, decency and respect for other people and the earth. I begin this new era inspired by President Barack Obama to fulfill Gandhi's words and "be the change I wish to see in the world."
Melanie Bowman is a 2008 graduate of San Ramon Valley High School.