By The Washington Post · Robin Givhan · OPINION, OP-ED
The words of "The Star-Spangled Banner," belted out by a pop star with enthusiasm and heart, were gut-wrenching. The tiny flags pinned on so many politician's lapels seemed less perfunctory and more like an act of faith. American flags welcomed president Joe Biden and the new first lady to the White House when the outgoing administration did not.
The American flag on this Inauguration Day wasn't a sign of victory as much as it was an emblem of stubborn endurance. Democracy survived for yet another day. And a generation of Americans must reckon with the uncomfortable realization that a democratic tomorrow is not assured.
"We've learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile," said Biden in his inaugural address. "At this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed."
It was a close call for this country and one we won't soon forget. The civic unrest of 2020, ignited by calls for racial justice, mutated into mobs storming the U. S. Capitol only two weeks ago fueled by a desire to subvert the Constitution. They broke out windows and vandalized historic rooms all while cowering behind the American flag. And while the glass can be replaced, the vandalism scrubbed away, the country's citizens bear the scars of anger and fear, suspicion and cynicism.
Our volatile history of racial injustice has never been resolved. Instead, we've tiptoed around it, whispering and hanging back instead of getting on with the difficult work of defusing it. Over countless generations we've been putting out stubborn fires, professing shock when white supremacy flared up and willfully misunderstanding the difference between grievance and justice. We must contend with these threats.
But on January 20, the American flag flew over the U.S. Capitol and despite the recent assault on it - regardless of the civic unrest and the political division - it represented the best of us. Its promised meaning resonated more deeply than ever. Once again, the country moved forward.
We began by taking a step back.
More than 400,000 souls have been lost to covid-19 and the nation finally grieved them on the night before Biden took the oath of office. Their memory was honored by pillars of light shining in the darkness alongside the Reflecting Pool - with Biden noting that the painful act of remembering sets the foundation for a community to collectively engage in recovery.
On Tuesday morning, the flags on the National Mall reminded us of the many citizens who didn't survive the coronavirus pandemic to see this day. They stood in for the rest of us kept away by unprecedented security. The flags reminded us how much our national pride has been wounded as so many are hungry and unhoused. But the flags also reassured us that because democracy held up, there's hope.
When Lady Gaga sang "The Star-Spangled Banner," she lingered on the phrase, "Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there." Our national anthem is a complicated song if only because our history is so freighted. It rallies the country around the aftermath of a battle; it was written by an enslaver. But in these times, the words speak to a nation that has been through a different kind of battle, one that was not brought to our shores but one that was ignited from within. We have been at war with our own democracy. So far, we've failed to topple our own moral code. We've failed to annihilate ourselves and for this we can be thankful. Our flag is still there.
Gaga personalized the anthem but still sang it simply, without a circus of musical tricks. She stood on the inaugural platform dressed in a navy cashmere jacket and a buoyant red silk skirt made for her by Schiaparelli, a Paris-based fashion house helmed by Daniel Roseberry. "As an American living in Paris, this ensemble is a love letter to the country I miss so dearly," Roseberry said in a statement. His sweet missive was a reminder that we are intertwined with the world. We can't wall ourselves in and we can't wall others out no matter how hard we try. A gilded dove brooch - a sign of peace - was affixed to the bodice of Gaga's jacket. It was a plea to calm the national waters.
It's exhausting, after all, to hold on through the kind of turbulence of late. Anger is exhausting. Rage is disorienting. Everything about this inauguration seemed an effort to soothe a nation, from Garth Brook's simple rendition of "Amazing Grace," to the young poet laureate Amanda Gorman who spoke of the need to step into our history before we can move beyond it. We're a country in need of grace and mercy and no small amount of understanding. That was the message in every speech and every song, every scrap of fabric, every simple gesture.
Fashion played its role as it spoke to the occasion, the history that unfolded and the way in which the administration sees the country moving forward. It celebrated America in its diversity and complexity. President Biden wore a navy suit and overcoat created for him by Ralph Lauren - an iconic American brand that interprets this country's past and its present through rose-colored lenses that can sometimes seem out of touch and removed from the realities of our daily lives. And yet today, its version of starry-eyed optimism and familiar tradition was an acknowledgment of the way in which we imagine ourselves to be. It reminds us of the things that we once believed to be immutable and universal: the American Dream. We now know that we all dream differently but perhaps somehow we can still find common ground.
The first lady chose a dress and coat by the New York-based label Markarian, which was founded by Alexandra O'Neill in 2017. The 34-year-old designer who grew up in Colorado created the ocean blue tweed coat adorned with crystals paired with a matching dress in her New York workroom. The color, O'Neill said, expresses a sense of calm and stability, The chance to create the ensemble at all feels like a jolt to an entire industry. "I think Dr. Biden recognizes the impact her fashion choices have on American designers, on emerging designers - especially in these trying times," O'Neill said.
Who will the Biden administration push into the light? Who do all those flags represent? The flag belongs to us all and yet it has been weaponized against so many. It's been used to elevate one man's patriotism over another's, to declare some parts of the country more authentically American than others, to belittle some people's hurt while carefully nursing others through their pain.
So it meant something to hear Jennifer Lopez, with her Puerto Rican roots, sing "This Land is Your Land" and savor the words: "This land was made for you and me." It was monumental to watch Kamala Harris take the vice-presidential oath of office becoming a long list of firsts to step into such high office: woman, Black woman, Asian-American woman. She stood on the Capitol where a mostly White mob had tried to declare it theirs and theirs alone. She stood dressed in a purple overcoat and dress by a Black designer Christopher John Rogers.
Harris carried the multitudes with her as she made history. She allowed them to stand under the flag in all of its beautiful, frayed glory.
The flag represents our democracy, of course - the way in which we govern this country. But it also symbolizes the way in which we conduct our lives, relate to our neighbors and define ourselves. And for at least one more day, it was a reminder that we have the capacity to live under the flag with grace and calm.