History through a friend's eyes
By Pete Litterski
I remain at a loss for words on how to describe the reaction of my good friend Delaney Dudley, when President Barack Obama said, “So help me God” as he completed the oath of office during Tuesday’s inauguration.
Speaking later with a colleague, I described it as more of a guttural yelp than a shout or a scream. All I know is that I could hear both joy and relief in that simple, but powerful, “Yes-s-s-s.”
Even before Obama and Chief Justice John Roberts tripped over the words, I tried to tell Delaney that the completion of the oath wasn’t necessarily the magic moment. In the days leading up to Tuesday’s historic events, news anchors had made many references to the fact (or theory) that, according to the U.S. Constitution, the new president assumes office at exactly noon on Jan. 20, even if there is no oath of office.
“It’s not real until he says the words,” Delaney told me. “He’s got to say the words.”
This was not a debate about constitutional law going on in my office. This was a woman who helped make history as a child telling me she was not ready to believe we actually had a black president until Obama said, “So help me God.”
I say Delaney made history because a few years ago, when we sought local people to write guest essays for a series of Black History Month pages, our newsroom clerk/receptionist/historian/ friend agreed to share her memories of being one of the first children to cross the color line when the schools in Kilgore were integrated. (We made a deal. If she would write an essay, I would polish it for her. As it turned out, I barely touched a word or a comma.)
Delaney’s experiences were not as violent or as frightening as those of many other black children who were on the front wave of integration. The fact that she was one of those pioneers, however, surely impacted her perspective Tuesday morning as she joined much of the world in observing yet another — albeit much more famous — pioneer erase another color line in American history.
The two of us chat frequently, sometimes about serious matters and sometimes about trivial things. In all of the conversations we had about Obama’s candidacy in the past year, we had never talked about the big “what if.”
The fear was palpable in many corners of this nation, yet most people avoided the question: “What if someone decides to assassinate Obama?”
Even on Tuesday, Delaney and I never touched directly on the subject, but her concern was implicit as we discussed why it was so important to hear “the words.” As we talked, I began to get it simply because I was able to understand what was behind her concerns.
I often tell my family and my other friends that I wish more people could have a friend like Delaney. For the most part, our friendship is based on simple matters like a shared fondness for the blues, or a shared weakness for foods such as smoked brisket or dressing (even if we disagree about bread vs. cornbread).
We talk about grandkids and our mothers more than we talk about politics and race.
When the news or the day’s events call for it, however, we find that thanks to the trust born of friendship, we can share our views honestly and openly — even when they diverge. Because of that, I sometimes find it easier to understand feelings and the emotions I might not necessarily be able to connect with.
I didn’t invite Delaney into my office Tuesday morning so I could observe her reaction to Barack Obama’s inauguration. I saw her standing in the newsroom watching the television we have mounted high on the wall and I simply thought my friend would be more comfortable sitting in one of my guest chairs and watching my small television.
The conversation and the insight that ensued were just the fringe benefits of having a friend like Delaney Dudley.
Pete Litterski wrote this Jan. 25, 2009, column as senior editor/editorial page editor of the Longview News-Journal.