Putting On a Top Hat

By Becky O'Malley
Wednesday January 21, 2009 - 06:27:00 PM

We all compared notes on when we first started to cry during the inauguration. Friends at both of the TV-watching parties I went to on Tuesday morning were well-supplied with Kleenex, luckily, since I’ve never mastered the grandmother trick of carrying a little hankie at all times. For me, it was Aretha’s hat that did it.  

That hat has been waiting for 50 years to make its appearance on the steps of the Capitol. It is not only well-constructed, it’s armored against the slings and arrows of any outrages fortune might throw at it. It’s a Baptist hat, a Black Baptist hat, a hat for the ages. 

The Aretha Franklin who sang wearing that amazing hat was not just the pop and feminist icon of the ’60s and ’70s. She was the proud daughter of the Reverend C.L. Franklin, pastor of one of Detroit’s major churches, and she was the spiritual descendant of the legion of African American women who have held their heads high in amazing hats on Sunday after Sunday despite weekdays filled with hard work and insults. Ladies in other denominations also wear fine hats, but the Baptists have been the recognized champions, as Aretha demonstrated so ably on Tuesday. Hats like that one haven’t been seen on the national stage before now, but their time has clearly come. 

On Wednesday I was surprised to learn that my media colleague Jon Carroll had also been blown away by Aretha’s hat and what it represented. On reflection, it doesn’t seem so surprising, however, since we both grew up in Pasadena, which in the late ’50s was one of the few comfortably integrated old cities in California. Like Oakland, it was a railroad terminus, and had a strong black middle class bolstered by the good union wages of the Pullman porters. Of a Sunday, admirable hats of all kinds were to be seen on the streets of Pasadena when Jon and I lived there.  

The Detroit women in the ’60s who wore Sunday hats like Aretha’s were a breed apart, however. They were tough fighters for what they knew was right, which in my work with them included not only civil rights for themselves but an end to the Vietnam war, in the middle of the decade, long before the college kids jumped on the bandwagon in 1968. Their sons were being drafted, so they marched. 

We opted out of attending this inauguration in person, since we’d been to the one in 2000 and knew how cold and nasty Washington can be in January. That would be Bush II’s Inauguration I, and no, we weren’t in the reserved seats. A few of us crazy Berkeley types, furious because the election had been stolen out from under our noses, took a Southwest flight to the Baltimore airport, got rooms in a cheap motel (no competition from the Republicans for that one), rented a car to drive to the end of the Washington Metro line and schlepped our signs in to join the march on the Supreme Court. To my everlasting joy, we encountered a busload of folks from the Detroit NAACP. Two women of my own age linked arms with me so that we could keep warm, and we discovered that we’d all participated in 1963 in the same Detroit civil rights march down Woodward Avenue in Detroit which was the precursor and model for the better-known Washington march which followed. 

I thought of them when someone at one of this week’s inauguration parties said excitedly that he’d been waiting a long time for this moment. How long? He’d been working for Obama for a year and a half at least, he said. Well, it’s been just about 50 years of my own life that I’ve been waiting, and some of those ladies in the splendid hats were waiting much longer than that. Aretha brought them all to the party with her. 

At the pre-inauguration poetry reading at Rebecca’s Books on Monday night, a spirited standing-room-only event, one of the African American readers whose name I didn’t catch read her poem written during the primary campaign. She expressed her initial discomfort with Barack Obama as a man who did look like her, but whose cultural experience had been very different. She said she’d reconciled her feelings by remembering that he’d chosen a wife and mother for his children from among the African American descendants of slaves like herself. The Obama family pulls together all the varied fabrics of the American heritage as the patchwork quilt which the president described in his speech. 

The speech itself was the best short-word speech I’ve ever heard. There are two kinds of speechs, short-word and long-word speeches. Long-word speeches, replete with fulsomely turned phrases using polysyllabic Latinate words, are designed to inspire and uplift in a general way. Short-word speeches serve as marching orders, signaling that it’s time to shift from contemplation to action.  

An unreconstructed leftist of my acquaintance, spiritual kin to Katha Pollitt’s ex The Last Marxist, was heard to complain that Obama didn’t provide a laundry list of specific programs that he was going to put forward. Well, no, that wouldn’t have been suited to a largely ceremonial occasion, but by delivering a bare-bones short-word speech the president made it clear that the real work would begin very soon. 

I heard some fellow called Rick opining on NPR that he himself would have written a fancier speech. He also said that it was nice that Aretha had sung “America the Beautiful” in a jazz style. Since she actually sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” with a gospel flavor, I resolved never to hire Rick to report for the Planet. The interviewer later identified “Rick” as former Clinton speechwriter Hendrik Hertzberg, now a New Yorker writer and editor, so probably we won’t have to face turning him down for a job here.  

Old Rick’s a pretty good writer himself, and his temptation to write a long-word speech would have been strong if he’d been working for Obama. Good short-word speeches are very hard to do well, but when they work, as this one did, they’re powerful in a way that flowery prose can never be. But they don’t provide many pull-quotes. 

About the specifics: We noticed in our group that Obama promised to “forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan.” That’s new, and a distinct improvement over his campaign rhetoric which spoke much more of victory, an impossible goal.  

He didn’t mention Gaza, but an Israeli-American friend who keeps in touch with his old country via the Internet said that commentators there for the last two weeks have been reporting that Israeli leaders sought one more week of fighting to “clean up” Gaza, but continuing Defense Secretary Gates told them emphatically that American acquiescence to the invasion would end on Inauguration Day.  

This story never made any American paper that I saw, but according to Wednesday’s Los Angeles Times, “Israel finished pulling its forces out of the Gaza Strip today, timing the withdrawal to President Obama’s first full day in office.” So it might be true. 

Has the Millenium finally arrived? As we remember it, the chronological millenium came and went with no sounding of trumpets as G.W. Bush grabbed the White House.  

Obama’s fully legitimate accession to the presidency will probably not produce the major transformation of society after which all things will be changed, eagerly anticipated by millenarian religious groups. At moments on Tuesday, especially as he danced with Michelle at events which looked a lot like high school proms, he looked mighty young for the job, and I remembered that he was a classmate of my daughter’s at Columbia. But he’s off to a good start. After all, it’s not that he’s young, it’s that those of us who have been fighting in the trenches for the last half-century are starting to get a bit old. I wouldn’t exactly say we could retire and let him do all the work from now on, but we might be able to kick back a little from time to time.