Note: The views expressed are my own and do not represent the positions of any organizations or colleges with whom I work.
The President of Talladega College, the oldest Historically Black College in Alabama, just asserted that a presidential inauguration is a “civil ceremony celebrating the transfer of power.” This stance is what enabled President Hawkins to decide ultimately that the College’s Marching Band, despite considerable dissent on and off campus, could perform at the upcoming Trump Inauguration. The event was, after all, non-political.
I beg to differ.
I understand the value of students participating in democratic events, seeing our government in action and the peaceful (one hopes) transition from one leader to another. And, for many Talladega student band members, I suspect this is their first trip to DC and no doubt their first opportunity to participate in a national inaugural parade. As Talladega alumnus William Harvey, now President of Hampton University (another HBCU) added, this is a teachable moment to enable students to “…understand the importance of supporting the leader of the free world…”
For me, at least, it is too simplistic to dichotomize between civic and political events. Something like an inauguration is, without question, a tradition evidencing leadership transition. But, it is more than that. Remembering the initial inauguration of President Obama, there was a sense of history being made – a shift in American politics that enabled an African-American to hold the highest office in the land. The event was, without question, political.
Today, in a nation as divided as ours and given the current climate in government, this Presidential inauguration is also immensely political. There was a hard fought election; there was vituperative debate; there were allegations of Russian hacking; there was discriminatory rhetoric and proposals to eliminate many initiatives that benefit low- income families of color and immigrants. Participating in the Trump inauguration is, then, tacit support for the political agenda and policies of the newly elected leader. It is “his” party (in every sense of that word).
Now, to be sure, prior presidents are attending the event, including Bill Clinton with Hillary Clinton, Trump’s rival and nemesis. Query as to whether she is attending as Bill’s spouse or as the defeated Democratic candidate or both. Also attending will be some of the Bushes, the Carters and the Obamas. Every living president (except George HW Bush who is infirmed) will be there. Perhaps that creates an opening for the Talladega Band too. But, there is an important difference. By attending, these former US leaders are making a very public statement: we believe in the smooth transition to power and we are not going to disappear. Like the attendees Mr. Trump invited to one of the debates to serve as annoyances to Hillary, these attendees adding rain to the Trump parade.
The Talladega Marching Band cannot make that argument. Instead, they are making a different statement, something that cannot be escaped. They are marching for the new leader, honoring him and his office. They are signaling that his new position is more important than his stand on issues related to race and gender and ethnicity.
There is one possible solution given that the band will, indeed, be playing. Perhaps they can play a protest song, a song supportive of freedom and equality. How about one of the 10 best protest songs identified by Rolling Stone Magazine? Now that would be something worth hearing.
So, one decision has been made – the decision of the Talladega Marching Band to march. Perhaps their choice of what to play is still open to discussion. And, we can listen to learn what they have to say through their music. They still could be political.