Farewell Obama… “We Got It From Here”
Barack Obama and I ‘officially’ moved to Washington, D.C. around the same time. I turned 18 just four months prior to the 2008 election and cast my first vote shortly thereafter. I was three months into my freshman year at Howard University on Election Day. My confidence in my own Blackness was shaky at best; my social awareness, severely lacking. Still, the magnitude of the moment it was announced that our next President of the United States was Barack Obama, a Black man from Hawaii by way of Chicago, was not lost on me. In those seconds, it wasn’t about an impending eight year debate about his policies, actions or inaction. It was about hundreds of years of sometimes-blind faith, pain and progress. It was about the way Black people existing is a political act in itself. Every day we take a breath, laugh, smile and survive is resistance.
But I didn’t know any of that then, and that is the point.
I applied to attend Howard unsure of what I was looking for beyond classrooms where I’m not the only colored face. My immediate family wasn’t explicitly and verbally pro-Black but instead led by example of Black excellence. My father was a chemical engineer, and my mother is a financial controller; both are also Howard alumni. They encouraged education and extra-curricular activities all the while reminding me and my brother that we had to be “twice as good” to reap half the rewards— one of the many “talks” minorities receive before we are set out in a world that is unforgiving of our melanin. In spite of all of this, by the time I got to college, my ideas of Blackness were warped.
To paint a picture, the population of my hometown of Asheville, NC is somewhere around 85,000 people in the city-proper. Only 13% are African American, but account for 52% of the residents in subsidized housing (up to 70% for public housing) and 40% of countywide juvenile arrests. Around 37% live in poverty. This is the unfortunate portrait of far too many American cities, large and small. But even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, I thought those stats were supposed to be my reality as a Black person in this country. I hadn’t yet learned the magic that is code-switching, the many narratives that form our experiences, the assortment of ways to wear my color, the beauty of walking in your own truth. Instead, I thought I was doing it — it being Blackness — wrong.
On that chilly November day in 2008, I was still a baby at Howard, surrounded by every shade, style and swag of Afro-beauty. The excitement of being on hallowed ground — the Mecca of Black excellence — at such a historic time sat over the campus like a blanket of electricity. I accompanied my friend and her mother to Montgomery County, Maryland to cast their votes and spent the rest of day looking for an Obama shirt to wear to the election watch party later that night. As we traveled from DC to Maryland and back again, I remember talking to my friend about the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. It was the same combination of pride overcome by fear recounted in an episode of Black-Ish. Questions of ‘what happens if Obama doesn’t win?’ and ‘where do we go from there?’ were replaced with one that somehow felt more bleak: What if he does?
Throughout the course of his campaign, many of us fell in love with the fresh, melanated face of Barack Obama. Not just as a politician — in fact, just as many disagreed and continue to disagree with his policies — but as the symbol of hope on which he ran his campaign. The audacity of his very existence was overwhelming. We loved him for what he represented. Charisma seeped out of him in every appearance, and something about him felt gentle and genuine. We loved him as a person, so the idea of this person in the most high-profile position in the land sometimes felt more bitter than sweet. What if racists, consumed with hate and resentment, stole him from his wife and children? Stole him from us. (Of course, history tells us the cost of hope can be life, but who of us wanted to pay it then?) The feeling weighed on me the entire day until it was finally time for the tallying of the votes.
Groups of us filed into the student center in Blackburn where there were projector screens tuned to news channels and a DJ, of course, to pass the time. State by state the results poured in, the room erupting for every Obama victory. At long last, when it was finally time for the verdict, the room counted down as polls closed on the west coast. Within seconds, we knew, and the reality of a Black president washed over every person. The fear was no longer, only stunned excitement and relief. The promise of our ancestors, the weight of their sacrifice made good in a single second — heavy with the acknowledgement that people stood here before me, my parents among them, convinced this was something they would never witness. We sobbed. We prayed. We cheered. But most importantly, we celebrated ourselves, celebrated him, celebrated for those that were beaten and brutalized in the name of this better future they couldn’t know with certainty.
Barack Obama’s 2008 election coincided with a significant cultural shift in how we get, process and share information. Around that time, Twitter was quickly growing from infant into awkward adolescent, attracting users in droves. The land of oversharing rose from 300,000 tweets per day in 2008 to 2.5 million tweets per day the following year. (That number is well over 500 million currently.) Facebook had recently opened its doors to allow non-college students to join, and Tumblr was rapidly becoming a much cooler version of LiveJournal/Blogger. Blackberrys dominated 2006; the iPhone was released in 2007, and by 2008, most every adult who could afford it was carrying their whole life in the palm of their hand. At that particular moment in time, Black people were becoming able to connect with each other in ways that BlackPlanet.com could’ve only dreamed. And while Obama clearly wasn’t the cause of or directly responsible for any of this, it neatly places him atop a narrative many years in the making.
From 2008 up until now, we’ve become keenly aware of what it feels like to consciously manipulate and reshape (what will be) history in real time. The realization forces you to acknowledge yourself as an active participant, empowered — responsible, even — to help direct and change it. There is nothing more beautiful than wielding a pen when a page turns blank, and under the leadership of Obama, we refused to be written out. Communities previously hidden in plain sight revealed themselves with the help of social media’s boom. The intangible but omnipresent BlackTwitter rose to make our presence and our power known, and in the midst of the affirmations and inside jokes, we found a flawless medium for mobilization. Even if it was a false assumption, certainly some of us were driven into the streets chanting “Black Lives Matter” because we believed we had backup in the White House that had never existed at any other time in this country’s history, convinced we matter because he matters. Pride is fashionable when your president is Black, and we ceased worrying about taking up too much space because the First Family made clear our inheritance.
When the President of the United States is Black, every person is unrelentingly forced to reckon with race. For me, having a face that resembled mine in the White House (coupled with the knowledge I was acquiring during his first term) counteracted things I’d understood to be true about our limitations and our value, if but only in theory. Several hundred slain brown bodies at the hands of the police later, and we know that the way we are perceived remains largely unchanged. With a new president and previously unmatched levels of connectivity, it didn’t take long for the truth of race relations to be revealed, for our screens to become filled with lifeless Black bodies, for their names to become hashtags. Meanwhile, politically, there was Joe Wilson’s complete lack of decorum in the “You lie” incident. Then there was Marilyn Davenport who thought turning Black people into monkeys had no racial undertones. And from there, countless more instances of unparalled disrespect and attempts to undermine the president. He took it in stride. He smiled, shook the hands of his haters, threw some subtle shade, but mostly he let things slide just as all Black people are expected to do in the face of racism and contempt for our permanency.
All the while, communal spaces dedicated to Black people indulging in shameless self-love continued to grow. Hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter, #BlackGirlMagic, #SayHerName, #MelaninOnFleek, #StayMadAbby, #ThanksgivingWithBlackFamilies and countless more were daily parts of our internet lives; each one a valiant confirmation of our humanity, our right to exist, a refusal to be erased. Before that, though, there was always Howard. It is by nothing more than serendipitous chance that I entered The Mecca and came of age under this presidency. All around me, people were sharing the particular quirks of their regional culture — slang, dances, styles of dress — stepping into themselves and embracing the things that being of the African Disapora gifts us. The new wave of Black girls choosing their natural hair over processed “relaxed” styles was only just beginning to become a way of life for those who weren’t always #woke and accustomed to loving their curls in all of their kinky perfection. There was no talking white and acting white here, only infinite ways of being Black. The lens through which I saw the world and saw myself fitting into it was changing wholesale.
In Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness, Michaela Angela Davis described Black cool as “an intelligence of the soul.” She was speaking to Black style and the ways in which it’s undefinable and can’t be contained within pages and labels. She cites an example of an unnamed journalist who suggested that since Michelle Obama wore cardigans and designer clothes, there was no distinct Black style and, therefore, no need to distinguish it. Of this, Davis wrote an apt double entendre: “Just as brave Black people fought for the right to vote: Black folks must fight to keep our cool.”
Much could be written about the grace of Barack and Michelle Obama and how, for eight years that culminated with half of the country choosing mutually-assured destruction, they never lost their cool in the emotional sense. But I’ll always remember more their proverbial cool — the way they moved through white spaces radiating Blackness. Every time they entered a room draped in swagger that defies definition; every time Michelle showed a little rhythm or had a little fun or Barack broke into song, something in me beamed at the way they eclipsed everyone else in the room. Even hip hop, a genre and culture that shapes so many of us, finally got to slap the naysayers who diminish it to simple ignorance when Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z, Common, Wale, Chance the Rapper, J. Cole and Killer Mike (to name a few) were holding court in the White House. When Barack called out folks for “popping off” or dapped Kevin Durant or smiled when Larry Wilmore called him “his nigga” at the last White House Correspondents Dinner before he, himself, quite literally dropped the mic on his way out — occasions that drew the ire of (white) people waving the tasteless flag — it resonated and reaffirmed those intangible things we share and understand without explanation…including the criticism. Those fleeting moments were as defiant as they were triumphant because what is more affirming than the head of state refusing to code-switch for a room full of white people?
When it’s written into the annals of history about the time America had a Black man at its head, the endless debate about his political legacy will continue to roar. Much will be made of drones, the silence around #BlackLivesMatter (and police sympathizing), poverty and crime. As a president and politician, he was accountable to every last person in this country — which, yes, resulted in some policies that weren’t in our favor or that far removed from those of presidents that came before him. But as a cultural icon, Barack Obama was ours. There was no stripping his Blackness, no denying the sense of pride the First Family instilled in many of us simply by existing.
In his final year, he stopped by the same door we entered: Howard University. The Class of 2016 he sent off will be the first to face the aftermath of a Black president — a country that half resents him and the progress he represented. I don’t know what Trump’s America will look like, and I do not feel confident that it ends well. It was hard to not concede to cynicism in the wake of his election. And while I can attest to Howard’s ability to uplift and reinforce the beauty that is melanin, to arm its students with the knowledge and strength to navigate spaces far from post-racial, they won’t have Obama and that is significant. But without a doubt, we, as a culture, are forever changed because of him. Hope and change were his platforms, but maybe those things weren’t so much about elections and politics as it was about what we do when it’s all said and done. As the cliche goes, “be the change”… and hope.