Tears, cheers and whoops in New Jersey

January 20, 2009 4:20:41 PM PST
Kamarie Smith promised herself she wouldn't cry. Yet when Barack Obama finished taking the oath of office with a firm "So help me God" to become the nation's first black American president, the tears came nonetheless.

"I'm just so grateful that my kids are able to see this and know that they can achieve anything they want in this world, and that nobody can hold them back from anything," said the 32-year-old federal government worker from Hamilton Township in Mercer County who took a vacation day to watch the inauguration with her 11-year-old son at Trenton's War Memorial auditorium.

They were two of hundreds of people who gathered in public places in New Jersey to watch Obama's inauguration, then talk about what it means to them and to the nation.

James Wigfall of Newark watched at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. The 75-year-old retired janitor thought back to the lynching of his older brother in their hometown of Middlesboro, Ky. Wigfall was 12 at the time.

"Today is the most gorgeous day ever, especially for black people because we have been suffering so hard for so long," he said. "I didn't think I would ever see this. I was born in the South and I saw my 18-year-old brother get lynched in Middlesboro. They said they hung him because he had reckless eyeballs, which means someone white didn't like the way he looked at them."

But, he said, "I'm trying not to think of the past today. The past is the past. I'm looking to the future. We have to let the past go."

Gov. Jon S. Corzine said Obama inspires New Jersey.

"As President Obama takes the reins of leadership, he stands as an inspiration to children yet unborn and dreams not yet conceived," Corzine said. "At this moment in history, I think of children in Newark, Camden, Princeton and Cherry Hill. All across New Jersey and our nation, children will look to our new President and know that their opportunities are unlimited."

Lamont Jordan, a counselor for troubled youth in Newark, said blacks feel more included now.

"I feel like 'us' now, instead of 'them,"' said Jordan, 37. "We feel like we're really part of America today. People are coming to the understanding that we're all in this together."

Most of those who attended the Trenton viewing were elementary and high school students, and they cheered wildly at every mention of Obama's name during preliminary ceremonies.

"Today means that all of us kids have a chance to do something great," said Ryshawn Cooper, an 11-year-old from Hamilton. "We didn't think his could ever happen. It's exciting!"

Edna Williams, 52, of Ewing, said she was so excited about Obama's inauguration she could not sleep Monday night.

"I wanted to stay awake every moment" she said. "I was afraid I would miss something."

She said all presidents talk about bringing the country together, but believes Obama truly will.

"It's important for people to know that Barack is for everyone,' she said. "Look at his parentage: half black, half white. He's not just for the blacks. He's for everybody. I truly believe he will do great things and bring important changes to the world."

Vincent Blasse, a Trenton elementary school teacher, said Obama's presidency is already changing the way people deal with each other.

"There is a change in tone. You can feel it. You can see it," he said. "Even in the supermarket and around the neighborhood, people are smiling at each other more. Change is in the air."

Jasmin Kelly, a 9-year-old from Gables Elementary School in Neptune, said she was proud to have a president that looks like her and her family.

She said she likes Obama "because he doesn't change the rules and doesn't get us killed so we don't die because of anybody."

Asked if she might want to be president someday, Kelly emphatically shook her braided hair.

Why not?

"Because he has to sign all those papers," she said.