My high school did an awards ceremony every year, and there was a section that focused on graduating seniors. Part of the tradition was that the scholarships each senior received were listed in order, with the top scholarship-getter having theirs listed and then the total value of the scholarships announced. My junior year, there was a graduating senior, a black girl, who was the top scholarship recipient by far. The auditorium, predominantly white, filled with near-deafening applause for her. Afterwards, my mother and I were grabbing dinner, and she remarked that she wanted me to be in that spot the next year.
What Obama’s inauguration means today isn’t just a great step forward for him, or even a great step forward for African-Americans, although it is both of those things. It’s a signal that we all can persevere, that although structural obstacles exist, they are not insurmountable. There are hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people standing on the Mall today, and at noon today, a signal will be sent to them and to every person on Earth that those obstacles can be broken down, and that progress will be made by understanding how they fell and building upon the progress made in destroying them.
The term “leader” is often a misnomer; leaders are almost always following in the footsteps of others who sacrificed and trod before them. Great leaders understand where and how to follow, and how to bring others along as they build on the work of those who came before them. What I hope and what I think will make Obama a great leader is that he understands this and comprehends that he labors in the shadows of others; he builds rather than destroys.
Let’s just hope he can build. And that he inspires a generation of Americans to do the same.