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Robert D. Patterson Headshot

Our Shared Inheritance

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I never felt like a true American. Sure, I believe in freedom, democracy, the rule of law and the precepts put forth in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. These are beautifully crafted, heartfelt words and documents hammered out and written by men of truly great intent. In fact, as much as the original 3/5th rule offends me as a descendent of slaves, it doesn't change the fact that I firmly believe that in all, the base upon which America was founded for its true citizens was strong.

But while the groundbreaking has begun on a beautiful monument to Dr. King, Washington, D.C. for me has always been a painful reminder of the fact that I don't feel like a true American. For as much as my parents tried to convince me as a child, the realities of American society, even as an adult, led me to conclude that there was a ceiling to my individual aspirations; and that I was equally unlikely to see any African-American become president in my lifetime.

That is why being present in the nation's capital on this 20th day of January in the year 2009 was paramount to me. Not just because an African-American was to take the oath of office as president of the United States, but because I wanted to feel what I imagine most other Americans feel when they come to Washington, D.C. I wanted to look at the Washington and Jefferson monuments and the Lincoln Memorial and feel that this was the cradle of my inheritance as well.

That is why, after the flights sold out, I didn't mind driving over six hundred miles across the country. That is why I didn't complain while standing in 20 degree weather for five hours just to get on the train to D.C. On this chilly January day I yearned for the warmth of July's Independence Day, the warmth that comes from knowing you belong in the land your ancestors toiled upon as slaves, and died for in a righteous movement at home and wars abroad.

So I was surprised when, as I stood less than thirty yards from the podium where "a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant" prepared to take the oath of office to become our nation's 44th, and first African-American, commander in chief, I was distracted. Facing me was the magnificence of the Capital building, built over two hundred years ago over a span of thirty plus years by slave labor. Behind me were the deafening cheers of almost two million of my fellow citizens of all races, 300,000 waving flags, gathered on the National Mall shoulder to shoulder to witness the promise of our founding fathers kept, to see a dream fulfilled. In my hand was my daughter's favorite teddy bear, brought along so that she would know some day, as I know my ancestors knew then, that I was thinking about all of them at this very moment.

I was grateful when we were asked to bow ours heads for the invocation, because I could no longer hold them back. Tears shed not in sorrow, but in remembrance and reverence for all Americans, of all colors, who died to make this moment possible.

As the tears continued, a queen sang, two young princesses smiled and waved, and thirty-two imperfectly recited and repeated words later the kingdom celebrated with a twenty-one gun salute. Only there are no kings here in America; just the heir to a King, and vanquished was not an enemy, but any lingering doubts about our shared inheritance.