Afropuffs and an Obama White House
On a bright morning in February of 2009 I walked into the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to begin working as an intern in the White House Office of Presidential Personnel. This moment was the culmination of almost two years of working hard to elect Barack Obama as President of the United States. I’d started in Columbia, South Carolina, two days after my college graduation and made my way to Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Puerto Rico, Michigan, and finally Colorado, where the long road ended in victory. All of the miles on my car, the many hours of calling voters and knocking on their doors, working with volunteers, and all-nighters in campaign offices led me to the only moment I can remember clearly about my first day at the White House.
As I walked down one of the unimaginably long hallways, with its black and white checkered floors, wearing what I’m sure was some type of business suit, I was stopped by one of the custodians. She was an older Black woman and she was admiring my big afro. She told me that she’d worked at the White House during the previous president’s administration and she didn’t remember ever seeing anyone come in the building with hair like mine. Her tone, her smile, and her face let me know that she was proud of me, proud that I could wear my hair just like it was in this White House, and proud that together, for the first time in history, we had elected a Black man to the highest office in the land. I felt the weight of her pride as well as the expectations of my family, my friends, and my community. I thought of the millions of Black people who came before me, who could have never imagined walking in the front door of that building, let alone doing so with their afropuffs blowing in the wind. This was long before the days of Black girl magic hashtags, but I felt magical and I will never forget that moment. It was a reminder that there were people I didn’t even know rooting for me, cheering for President Obama, and basking in our collective accomplishment.
As a Black woman living in America in 2016, there is often cause for disappointment in my fellow countrymen and disillusionment in a national dream that does not seem to provide prosperity equally for all citizens. Young Black women and men are being killed at a rate disproportionately higher than just about every other demographic group in this country. The brilliant Black and brown children I serve every day as an educator are far less likely to be taught by high-quality teachers, have consistent access to the educational resources they need, or go to school in environments that are safe and healthy. When I stop and think about the breadth of problems facing not just people who look like me, but also people of all backgrounds in this country, I sometimes don’t know where to start the work of organizing for a solution.
However, that day in 2009 stands out for a reason. It is a constant reminder that impossible things are achievable and more importantly, that victories small and large are won through collective action. I was privileged enough to walk into the White House that day as an intern, but I was not the only person who worked hard to elect Barack Obama. His presidency was not just a 2-year battle, but part of an arduous and unglamorous organizing effort spanning centuries. Not only did famous people like Ruby Bridges, Shirley Chisholm, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Bayard Rustin lay the foundation for an Obama White House, but so did thousands of community members, church goers, parents, blue-collar workers, and young people working for a collective betterment and good that they sometimes would never see. These were people who never dreamed about a young woman and an older one sharing an exchange about afros in the White House hallway, but whose hard work allowed that young woman to experience something wonderful and much larger than herself.
I am inspired by the truth that when people band together for a greater good, we can accomplish amazing this. I am strengthened by the idea that a desire to support each other is not equal to a sublimation of individual needs. I believe that we can challenge oppressive systems and serve a collective desire for change and also accomplish our own dreams of success and prosperity. I know that the fight for justice and equality is slow and full of setbacks, but I also know that I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams and because of them I must work even harder in the days and years ahead.