I’ll always remember my turbulent introduction to Barack Hussein Obama. It was 2007; I was a senior at Longview High School and my US History teacher held up a Jet magazine with the image of a Black guy on the cover and told the class: this will be our next President.
I quickly rebutted: “Please, a Black man in America? This is US History, and according to this textbook, it ain’t happening.” My teacher, less than enthusiastic about my remarks, forced the class to watch the 2004 Democratic National Convention Keynote Address; I was deeply inspired. Like most of my peers, I began to think about his unifying message but still, I couldn’t imagine America with an African American President.
The year progressed, I graduated high school, and the primaries were in full motion. Now, a freshman at Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas, I was further engaged in the democratic process. Inundated with campaign materials, organisational flyers, and the adjustment of being in college, not to mention a historically Black university, I didn’t know how I would get engaged with the electoral process but I wanted to participate in “democracy” as a newly minted 18-year-old voter.
At this time, I was still eager to hear John Edward’s stories about his father working in a textile mill — he was so likable. However, on campus there were three options: join Students for Obama, Students for Hillary, or the Republican student chapter, which appeared defunct but existed. I was naturally drawn to the Students for Obama chapter despite the democratic split amongst the Arkansas contingency on campus.
Immediately, I became a doorknocker; canvassing neighborhoods throughout Houston’s 3rd Ward community encouraging people to get out and vote for Senator Obama. Honestly, I do not know if I was excited to be involved in a political campaign, voting for a President, or the fact that an African American man could potentially be the Democratic nominee. In hindsight, I am sure it was the combination of the three. Houston, Texas was a campaign hot spot for advocacy; it was common to see celebrities like Kerry Washington on campus rallying for Obama and Rocking The Vote.
After volunteering at local events, canvassing neighbourhoods, and phone banking, it was not uncommon to spend weekends working with the campaign in some capacity and meeting local and state officials. However, I will never forget the October morning when a small group of students were asked to suit up and volunteer at a Major Donor event in River Oaks. Given the geography of this event, it was not strange that we were required to wear our “Sunday’s Best” but this event was particularly small and a major campaign representative was supposed to speak at the event.
Various speeches were made in the room full of approximately 50 people. While hors d'oeuvres were being passed out, a caravan of Black SUVs quickly pulled into the circular drive and a number of large men exited the vehicle and made space for a tall, skinny, African American man to enter the home of Tony Chase. That man, then Senator Barack H Obama, stepped out of the vehicle, smiled, waved, shook hands, and entered the home. After given his twenty-minute stomp speech, I remembered my teacher’s words: “this man is going to be the next President of the United States.” After sweeping the room off their feet, he entertained a few small conversations and took a photo with small team of college volunteers. It was that October morning that I began to believe in the impossible.
After the event, I remember driving down 610 South with our on-campus advisor reflecting over those thirty minutes. Now on campus, I called my grandmother and told her about the meeting to which she quickly exclaimed, “Baby Boy, I hope you got some photos because that might be the next President.” She was right; on 20 January 2008, I stood in the freezing Washington, DC winter and watched Barack H Obama raise his right hand and become a two-term President of the United States.
A lot has changed since that cold January morning in DC. My grandmother is deceased; I graduated undergrad, graduate school, and I have developed a more pronounced opinion of America, the Obama Presidency, and politics in general. As the Obama era comes culminates, America is experiencing growing pains. Immigration, marriage equality, police brutality, health care, and the rising cost of higher education are just a few of the issues that President Obama was tasked with while rebuilding the economy, creating jobs, appointing Supreme Court Justices, and protecting our borders in an increasingly terroristic society.
As I reflect over the last eight years, I see myself. It’s strange because the America of my grandparents isn’t reflected in President Obama’s administration. Leading one of the most demographically diverse administrations in US History, the Obama appointments elevated the faces of women and minorities to long-term spaces that will impact generations. Federal judges, cabinet secretaries, Supreme Court nominees, and a few ambassadors are positions that reflected the diversity of the American population; however, those placements were hard fought. Naturally, I desired to see representation in Congress and gubernatorial elections to balance the federal representation but that is another article.
The impact that President Obama had on millennials cannot be overstated but it is coupled with the complexity of deportation, job loss, and a housing market that still has not fully recovered from 2008 market crash. And although the issues of access to healthcare and the rising cost of college tuition, the tragedy of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown Jr., Laquan McDonald, Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, The Emanuel Nine, Sean Bell, Jordan Davis, and Alton Sterling are all moments that became all too common under an African American President. It was during these moments when I desired the symbolism of an African American President to speak for us, African Americans, Black men and women, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, to articulate the experience to America. Too often were tears rolling down my face as the Black community chatted Black Lives Matter to an administration that responded with ineffective commissions, committees, and high-level meetings. We wanted to feel that we, too, were American and that our lives matter.
Trolled, disrespected, and continuously pandered to by candidates vying for the highest office, I almost feel taken advantage off in today’s political landscape. I must admit, I’ll miss the personality and leadership that President Obama and his family exhibited throughout these past eight years, but moving forward I am more reluctant to allow identity politics to become too factorial in my voting process. As a Black man in America, I have come to terms with the challenges placed before me simply due to the colour of my skin. I understand that policy and politics are not too kind to people like me but I also realise the importance of advancement over representation.
While there were a few cringe inducing moments throughout Obama’s Presidency, he normalised excellence, exhibited unparalleled temperament, and overcame adversity which further proves that regardless of my heritage, economical background, religion, and/or sexual orientation, there is space here in America for me.
As 20 January 2017 quickly approaches and the leadership of America changes, I’ll cherish these eight years. I’ll cherish the photo, the handshake, and the unparalleled message of hope and unity with me forever. There is not a term limit on hope and one day, I, too, will tell the non-contextualised story to my children and grandchildren of the time I met America’s greatest President.
The writer is a Reese Miller Scholar (2014-2015) and is pursuing a Masters in Sociology and Social Anthropology at Central European University, Budapest
Updated Date: Jan 14, 2017 11:54 AM