Asante Bradford gave his bosses nearly three months notice that he would not be at his desk on Jan. 20.
A day after Barack Obama’s historic presidential win, Bradford knew he wanted to be able to whoop it up when Obama was sworn in as the nation’s first black chief executive – and that he couldn’t do that at work.
“I decided if I couldn’t be (in Washington D.C.), I’m just going to take the day off, just so I can scream and holler,” said Bradford, 40, who works for the state of Georgia as a liaison to the entertainment industry. He plans to watch the festivities at home with friends.
People across the country may notice the absence of their black colleagues and classmates on Inauguration Day, as many who won’t be traveling to Washington gather at homes, restaurants and churches, huddle around TVs and watch the historic swearing in from afar. And while the ceremony itself will only last a few hours, the entire day offers a chance to reflect and rejoice in the moment.
“Being at work is not an option,” said Brenda Wilson, a 51-year-old manager at the American Cancer Society in Atlanta who abandoned her dreams of heading to Washington but will not be in the office. “I wouldn’t be able to get any work done, wondering what was going on.”
Coming a day after the federal observance of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday – many black Americans deem the day as something of a holiday requiring cultural solidarity, much like the Million Man March or the first King holiday in 1986. Then as now, many black people felt compelled to miss work, said Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of black popular culture at Duke University.
It recalls the 1965 theatrical classic “Day of Absence,” a one-act satire by black playwright Douglas Turner Ward that ponders events in a fictitious Southern town when all of the black people suddenly go missing.
“There’s a symbolism to this moment that would allow that they stay home and celebrate in their own ways,” said Neal, who plans to watch the ceremony with his daughters at their school.
Some businesses, particularly those with a large number of black employees, will accommodate workers, realizing the significance of the day.
Offices at The 100 Black Men of Atlanta will be closed to give the staff “an opportunity to participate in the experience” of the inauguration, said its chief executive officer John Grant. The group is a local chapter of The 100 Black Men of America, an organization of professional men who serve as mentors and role models for at-risk youth.
Many from there will spend at least part of their day at a boys’ charter school in Atlanta, watching the ceremony with about 175 sixth- and seventh-graders, including quite a few who will interrupt their workdays to volunteer.
“We want to sit with these young men and have a conversation with them about the importance of what this means to the nation, to the world and the image for young African-American men to see (Obama) with his wife and family and what this can mean for them,” Grant said.
Organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, headquartered in Baltimore will stay open, though employees will likely pause to watch the events.
Morehouse College, the renowned historically black institution in Atlanta, has not canceled classes but will offer a campus viewing for students and faculty.
“It’s important for students to view and discuss the significance of an extraordinary moment in American history,” said Robert Franklin, president of the all-male college. “At the same time, we want to continue
the work of preparing future leaders.”
The college is also sending two busloads of students to Washington.
But others, like Bari A. Williams, a corporate attorney in Oakland, Calif., will have to experience history from afar. She said she’s either planning to work from home or take the day off to watch the ceremony on TV with her only black co-worker in an office of about 50 lawyers.
“This is history unfolding live, said Williams, 28. “It’s one of those ‘Where were you?’ moments that you’ll discuss all of your life. This is the real New Year’s Eve to me and all of my friends.”
While thousands of blacks are expected to make the pilgrimage to the capital for the long inauguration weekend, others were convinced by the cold temperatures, high pricetag and big crowds to stay put.
Estella Gary, a 27-year-old public affairs specialist from Tallahassee, Fla., said she thought about being there in person, but got nervous that she might get caught in a logistical nightmare.
“I don’t want to miss any of this historical moment at all,” said Gary. “Who knows if I’ll ever see it again?”
Instead, Gary is watching at home – alone. She said she doesn’t want to repeat her Election Night mistake of watching with friends.
“It became a social hour,” she said. “This time, I want to focus in and watch it. I don’t want to be somewhere having a conversation about it.”
As with Gary, the inauguration will likely be more introspective than jubilant for some, said Neal, the expert on black popular culture.
“You can understand why people actually want to pay attention to Obama taking the oath, to want to hear Aretha Franklin sing. That makes it very different than Election Night,” Neal said. “It’s a much more reflective moment.”