Communication Currents

Keepers of the Legacy

February 1, 2009
Political Communication

In his inaugural address, President Barack Obama looked to America's past and the ideals of our founders to bring to life his messages of hope and change for the country. He claimed that we are, as citizens of this great country, the “keepers of the legacy.” Our responsibility is to advance the legacy by staying true to the ideals of our founders, and to initiate change by speaking and acting in the world equally. 

While it is true that our legacy includes the stains of discrimination and slavery at home and strife in international relations, Mr. Obama chose instead to arrange his speech around the nation's strengths. In choosing to focus on “our better history,” we can carry forward and more inclusively institute the ideals of freedom and equality. With his election to the presidency, the words of his speech, and the symbolism of the inaugural ceremony, President Obama and the other participants of the ceremony embodied and communicated to us the way we as a nation of diverse people can unite as one in service to the country and its legacy at home and in the world. 

The participants of the Inaugural Ceremony represented the diversity of the United States in their race, faith, and backgrounds. Their diversity, along with that of the millions who watched on the National Mall and around the world, symbolized “the meaning of our liberty and our creed.” The ceremony, aptly entitled “A New Birth of Freedom,” was a testament to our individual and collective stories and provided a showcase of transformative multicultural interaction.  

The activities of the ceremony added nonverbal reinforcement of President Obama's spoken messages. At the beginning of the ceremony, as Mr. Obama made his way to his seat, he stopped to speak to and embrace U.S. Congressman John Lewis, a prominent leader from the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Their embrace was an embrace that included and honored all who had suffered and fought so hard in their quest for equality in this land of the free. The promise of this moment was that we, as a nation, can move forward, and away from our history of discrimination and divisiveness among groups.  

Although the presence of Evangelical pastor Rick Warren was controversial and not welcomed by all, his invocation managed to strike just the right emotional chord. The hope is that his inclusion in the ceremony and his message of unity will sow seeds of change and tolerance.  

Diane Feinstein, a long time Democratic senator from California, served as a congenial, bi-partisan master of ceremonies. Associate Justice John Paul Stevens and Chief Justice John Roberts of the Supreme Court of the United States, in their recitation of the oaths of office for the Vice-President and the President, followed and spoke the code of law and the enduring ideals of the country.When Aretha Franklin, the legendary Queen of Soul, sang her heartfelt version of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”, it allowed us to believe that on this day the country was truly a “sweet land of liberty”. The musical interlude by Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, Gabriela Montero, and Anthony McGill brought a confluence of cultures and backgrounds to the playing of “Air and Simple Gifts” arranged by John Williams. Their blended notes and melodies spoke eloquently of our diversity and unity. 

At the end of the inaugural ceremony, Reverend Joseph Lowery, another prominent civil rights leader and recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize, gave the benediction. He spoke the words, “God of our weary years, God of our silent tears”, the lyrics of a hymn that is known as the “Negro national anthem,” a song that has buoyed the spirit of African Americans after the horrific times of slavery and in their long fight for freedom. By speaking these words at the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama, Lowery validated the struggle for freedom experienced by so many people in this country. His mention of this part of the country's past allows us to relegate those times to the past, and begin a new era of integration and cooperation among people. 

In the speech itself, President Obama expressed his desire for change and hope in the future by reflecting on the best of our nation's history and describing the great challenges we face. He praised the considerable achievements of the nation, but at the same time chastised us for our over-extensions and inequitable practices. He celebrated our independent and entrepreneurial spirit, while also calling us to come together to work collaboratively in the service of rebuilding the nation. He recognized our power as a nation of the world, but cautioned prudent use of that power in our interactions with others.  

“The world has changed, and we must change with it,” Mr. Obama claimed, as he outlined the tasks ahead of us. We must assist him and our elected officials in restoring jobs, creating opportunities for earning a fair wage, harnessing alternative sources of energy, providing accessible health care, improving our schools, and mending our economic system. In addition, we were called as a nation, to extend our hand in the world to renew peaceful relationships with other countries and, from our abundance, contribute to their well-being. As a list of tasks for Americans to undertake, it seems overwhelming, perhaps beyond our reach. Yet, it is also a realistic picture of the problems that exist in the country and the world. If we are to live up to our potential and both preserve and advance our legacy, these are the tasks we face. This work, according to President Obama, “is the price and the promise of citizenship.”  

We are not without resources in meeting these challenges. If we look to the past, and hold fast to enduring ideals of honesty, hard work, courage, tolerance, fairness, loyalty, and patriotism, we will find in them the ability to move forward with confidence toward the better future we seek. A first step in achieving these goals is to follow Mr. Obama's lead. We must learn to speak and act from the best our legacy has to offer. Following his suggestion, the strongest and most effective force is the “force of our example”. 

In his inaugural speech, President Barack Obama reminded us of the truths of our past, present, and future. His words, the inaugural ceremony, and the very fact of his presidency will be constant reminders of our duty to carry forth the nation's great gift of freedom through our words, deeds, and actions. Thus, we will deliver the nation's legacy safely, and in its improved version, to future generations.  

About the author (s)

Patricia C. Foley

Gallaudet University

Associate Professor