Mourning the Morning: On the Obama-to-Trump Transition
(Listen to the audio adaptation of this essay here: https://soundcloud.com/hopechestpodcast/sackcloth-farewell-inauguration-of-ashes)
It is just that wistfulness is no longer a luxury I can afford. It isn’t personal. The man, his wife, her mother, their daughters: in my life, there has been no Black family who has been more beautiful more consistently, under an eight-year glare of a chronically dissatisfied public. In my lifetime, I’ve not seen a president more cerebral or more trusting of the average American’s ability to keep apace with his intellectual rigor. I’ve not seen a First Lady whose look and whose life I’d want my own daughter to emulate more.
I will not soon forget the sense of ease I felt under their governance. What I expect most from a president is a quiet confidence that the democracy will not collapse during his employ. And until now, I have always been able to rely at least on that. During most presidencies, that bottom line — that finish line — was my point of clearest focus.
But through its steadiness, growth, openness, and stability, the Obama Administration drew me in, encouraged me to invest in ideals that had never been more than abstractions. The closer attention I paid, the more I relieved I felt. Dissent was encouraged. It could be handled. Even if blood flowed in classrooms and airports, in malls and churches and streets, the bow of the country would not break. The president would work with us and weep with us, even when Congress would not do the same, and somehow, we would remain a functional republic.
I will not soon forget how accessible the inside halls of the White House felt while the Obamas were its hosts, when I could watch Esperanza Spalding visit at least once a year to finger-pick her bass while her finger-picked afro swayed along at its 9-inch circumference or when De La Soul came through to sing “Me Myself and I” at a BET-hosted ‘House party or when new administrative appointments were announced and an unprecedented number were Black, brown, Native, disabled, LGBTQ+, a two-term litany of first-evers, a two-term reassurance that the richness of the country’s differences would be recognized, respected, trusted, celebrated.
I won’t forget how the White House became a destination scores of Black folk I knew longed to reach — and how many I’ve known personally who actually did reach it, either to attend a ball, take their children Easter egg-hunting on the South Lawn, conduct a news interview, or work for the administration.
So, no, that numbness I felt watching the Farewell Address last night, that slow-blinking sedation that crawled through me… it wasn’t personal.
I do not know what the Obamas will become to me — to us — as civilians. But I am certain, whatever their role, it will be just as deeply felt. I know they’ll still be with us and, because I know, I don’t lament their leaving.
All I could hear last night, as Obama remained ever the optimist, ever the imparter of bipartisan rhetoric and calls to personal achievement as much as political action, were the sounding brass and cymbal that tinnily echo in a room where love will no longer dwell. I could not stop thinking of his successor, how much it still must confound and annoy Obama to hand over, along with the keys and lease, that hard-earned quiet confidence that the country will not collapse under its new management.
Before, what it had always meant to be Black here was that no presidential administration would be thinking precisely of us when proposing policy that would make the nation economically, academically, or culturally richer. It meant that if policy would be enacted to acknowledge, defend, or protect our civil rights, it would be in response to centuries of outcry, pressure, and petition. It would not likely be passed from a place of true compassion or justice but rather as part of some broader strategy intended to protect our white male founders’ interests.
Knowing that, voting with it ever in mind (once we were finally allowed to), always made previous white presidencies bearable. You can only brace for what is well-known.
This incoming administration, however, seems decidedly unbearable. It appears that it is my generation’s turn to experience firsthand what it is like to live under the governance of a white man who doesn’t understand or respect American governance, who is, in fact, quite eager to unravel it, despite never in his life having had to thread a needle, let along restitch the very fabric of a democracy. Gone is the quiet confidence in the country’s ability to survive its leader. This is a leader disinterested in the concept of a free country, agnostic to its better angels, appealing instead to its crudest evils.
And he’s 70. And he’s aggressively anti-intellectual. And he’s already confirmed that a critical mass of Americans will support him, even with a vocal, easily searchable record of institutional and personal racism and sexism.
This is not a reality for which I can brace. This is terrifying. It’s terrifying in ways that would permeate indifference, apathy, and ambivalence, if those were options still available to us. They are not.
All of this has absolutely impeded my ability to fete the first black president’s hard-won farewell. It’s impeded my ability to function “normally” at all. I cannot rely on even my most apolitical patriotism, that ever-present white noise that has always whispered: America is America is America.
And without that, I do not want to hear anything else.
This is the eeriest irony: I had never felt more hopeful in America than when Obama campaigned for the presidency the first time and, remarkably, spectacularly, miraculously won it. And I have never felt more hopeless as an American than in these weeks he’s spent preparing to transfer his presidential power.
Never in my 37 years have I felt so exposed, vulnerable, targeted. Never have I felt as aware of all the other marginalized Americans who must be experiencing their own acute and distinct iteration of this susceptibility.
It is the quickly cracking limb on which an idealist never wants to find herself. But on this perch I can still recite a mantra: Progress has come before. Progress can come again. Resplendent pride in the office of the presidency was so strongly felt before. I will protect its memory now. The mettle of a democracy is most accurately assessed under the threat of dictatorship. So we must rest well. Study hard. Use the past and present as primary texts. And for the love of all that is salvageable, even if no longer holy: pass.