How I Grew With Barack Obama in the White House

 

I’m a young black man who had the privilege of growing into adulthood while a black man was president. And I’m here to tell you—yes, it mattered.

BY SAMUEL R. W. ELLISON, The Daily Beast

I was born in 1992, on the heels of hip-hop, the crack-cocaine epidemic, and the crime era of the 1980s; before the spectacles of Rodney King, O.J. Simpson, and the subsequent riots. Growing up in that era meant several things: You went from using Walkmans and Gameboys to Play Stations and iPods; you may have gone from baggy jeans to skinny jeans; you went from dial-up to broadband; and you went from Bush to Clinton to Bush to Obama. Each of these men has assumed the office of the presidency during the last 30 years, the last of whom is President Barack Obama, a black man. The other three are white men, as were his 43 predecessors.

One of 44 is not a daunting statistic for black folks. Whether it’s one in five or 10 or 50 or 100, defeating insurmountable odds is essential to our collective story. Within the black community, the probability, let alone existence, of a black president has long been a farfetched fairy tale. Like many forbidden opportunities—de jure or otherwise—that dangle themselves above afflicted communities, it became a joke. Comics from Richard Pryor to Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle have poked fun at this notion, so much so that it became a commonplace.

Despite the implausible odds and pessimistic jokes, over the past eight years, from the time I was 15 to 23, I have had the privilege of growing into my blackness with a reflection of myself in the White House. During these formative years of political awakening, it is no coincidence that the indifference I felt about my blackness began to shift with the election of our first black president. And today, my political participation has become not an option, but a duty.

For me, this shift began on January 20, 2009, when the years of doubt became a moment of elation during the inauguration ceremony. On that day, black folks throughout the United States and abroad were endowed with much more than a political victory. At stake in this election was the opportunity to affirm an entire community. And luckily, I was there, albeit reluctantly.

Leading up to the 2008 presidential election, I had a casual party affiliation because of what my parents believed and how they voted—Democratic. I knew the Iraq War was a quagmire. I could remember as far back as the 2000 election, the hanging chads and the pandemonium that led to the Bush administration. I could sense the frustration growing up as I remember the friends of my parents expressing disdain toward Republican policies. But I was far from a shaped and polished political being.

So 2008 made for a fascinating moment in American politics with the two contenders on the Democratic side—a white woman and former First Lady and Senator, against a black male Senator from Illinois. This scenario was a dream come true. Clinton embodied that dream because her candidacy evidenced a resistance to a political environment that incessantly sexualizes and delegitimizes women. Obama embodied it because a black president felt about as likely as the post-racial America that many hoped would follow.

On Inauguration Day, my parents insisted that we go as a family to witness this historic occasion. I knew that it was momentous, but I also felt perfectly comfortable watching on CNN just like everybody else. Laziness aside, it was also January, and bitterly cold outside.

My parents did not heed my passive-aggressive protests. During the drive from Philadelphia down to Washington, I looked up at the ceiling in the backseat of our Chevrolet Astro van, pondering why we had to go. We arrived at the hotel near the Pentagon; my parents and my sister had an excitement different from my own. They drove around D.C. the night before, sightseeing under the nimble light of the moon; I opted to watch a basketball game.

The next morning, we awoke early. I piled on layers, tied my shoes, and zipped up my jacket. I made my displeasure known with my lumbering steps, disgruntled face, and excessive shivers. It seemed like we walked for hours through the streets and Metro stops, making the trek to the Capitol building feel endless.

Finally, we arrived, and as I had anticipated, we couldn’t see shit. We were standing close to the Washington Monument, far from a line of sight. I’m six-feet-four-inches, but even my freakish height could not provide me a better view. We were packed like sardines next to thousands-upon-thousands of people hoping to get a glance. Speakers projected the sound of the ceremony. After Chief Justice John Roberts swore in the new president, a boisterous roar overtook the crowd.

And to my surprise—I found myself joining in.

Standing around me was America and all its beauty. People of all shapes, colors, and garb; people who earnestly believed that this day would never come in their or their child’s lifetime; people who felt a palpable shift in the direction of this country. Although Barack Obama’s campaign was astonishing, innovative and unprecedented, I suppose what I have learned between then and now is that no one candidate has that power. No one person has the capacity to change this country on demand, because change moves at a glacial pace. The symbolism, however, endures.

All of this led me to feel excited, but not overly so, by Obama’s rise. At the time, I was dating someone who was heavily involved in the campaign. At her request, we canvassed on Election Day, encouraging suburban Philadelphia residents to vote for Obama. I went home later that day and watched him, along with his wife and daughters, address the people of Chicago with the knowledge that he would move into the White House in a few short months.

Retrospectively, I can imagine this moment unfolding in other African American households. Prior to that day, our thesis held true: a rightfully held belief that one of our own would never occupy the Oval Office. But this candidate made it. We all won that day.

The day after, I remember walking into English class, and my teacher, an Obama supporter herself, asked me how I felt (with the clear subtext of asking me to explain how black people felt). Despite my ambivalence, I felt a sense of momentary joy, which began to fade as Inauguration Day approached.

For the past eight years, it has been normal for me see a president with darker skin, closer to the hue of my own. Not a mayor, not a musician or a professional athlete, but the President of the United States of America. My attendance at the inauguration changed me, but not necessarily in the way I might have expected. I did not expect our new president to become the moderator of black oppression and white supremacy; I did, however, expect him to be our champion, like many people my age. We wanted him to say more and do more. We wanted him to use words like “racism” or “white supremacy”. We wanted him to specifically articulate that black people in America have a different set of concerns and a different reality to live by, and that our policies must account for that, unapologetically.

Some may argue that while he has not done that, he has used his political clout to fight for victories that would specifically benefit African American people without the semantics (i.e., the Affordable Care Act, housing discrimination, My Brother’s Keeper, etc.). Still, though, we wanted more.

Despite all Obama’s failures and misgivings, I finally felt represented. As a teenager, struggling to find my own identity as a person—let alone a black person—I often felt that I did not want to be black. Not in the sense that I wanted to erase my black skin for that of white skin, but I did not want to feel beholden to standards that no one could possibly oblige. I was tired of being told, either directly or indirectly, that I was not black enough, or that my interests were not black, or my speech was not black.

Back then, this burden forced me to want to relinquish something that is attached to me eternally: my skin—my own beautiful skin and all the baggage that comes with it. I believed that maybe if I was just me instead of the black me, I might feel more significant. I might feel as though my possibilities were infinite and unbounded. I matured out of this phase, because there is no me without my blackness. My possibilities are infinite, and in fact, enhanced because of it. But it does not expunge those thoughts. I will always remember those slights and sentiments, as they are forever a part of me. The difference now, though, is that they will never define me.

The iconography of a black family in the White House, among other things, has led to a generation of black youth who have a different compass. And because of the Obama’s and their mere presence, being oneself today feels a bit more promising. Like any struggle with identity, much of blackness is wrapped up in who or what we cannot be, where we can or cannot go, and what we can or cannot say. In response, inch by inch, we are claiming it for ourselves, however we see fit.

Very soon, a black family will no longer inhabit the White House. No one can say when or if we will see another non-white family in that position. Leaving aside what our president has or has not accomplished in terms of policy, his presence in the White House has fulfilled a sense of self within our collective identity that was never a guarantee. Although that cold January day was not too long ago, for me, it was the beginning of a shifting tide. Not one that held the prospect of keeping and delivering all of the promise wrapped up in our first black president, but one that held something even more essential: the slightest bit of promise at all.

Since 2009, I’ve been back to DC several times, and I returned fairly recently. Like many black folks, I descended upon our nation’s capital during the opening weekend of the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). Although I did not have the opportunity to take a tour, I was able to drive by the breathtaking structure, which stands out among the white stone buildings throughout the city.

Roughly two blocks north of the museum was a Turkish festival. Roughly two blocks South was the Holocaust Museum. Further down the road is the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. And just down Pennsylvania Avenue live, for a few more weeks, Barack and Michelle Obama, in a house built by slaves that, eerily, functions as a symbol of freedom. This sort of amalgamation is only possible in the United States.  Simultaneously, and within several blocks, one could taste a kebab or learn a Turkish phrase, and witness, in visual and textual detail, both the pride and pain of African-Americans and Jews.

This happened at a time when I was finding it excruciatingly difficult to be proud of this nation, with the drinking water still contaminated in Flint, Michigan and black and brown bodies slain without recourse for justice and transgender Americans associated with their bathroom usage instead of their humanity. But taking in all this made me proud just a moment that weekend.

It served as a stark reminder of the story of oppressed communities in this nation, which is defined by a constant struggle for recognition. Nearly 100 years ago at the 19th St. Baptist Church, black folks gathered to erect a structure to document our story. This mission was not achieved until September 2016. It seems only fitting that our first black president would help hallow these grounds, along with civil rights icon Congressman John Lewis. These two men are bookends, of sorts: Obama representing a new age, and Lewis, the vanguard of our struggle for civil rights, with the following chapters yet to be written.

These subsequent chapters are of interest to me, especially as the Obama family will soon leave the White House. And like our first black family in the White House, the construction of a museum, after a century of delay, is a fitting reminder that history is not a stagnant phenomenon; it repeats, over and over, for better and for worse. In 2016, there is an intensity in the air, one that is beleaguered by the constant disappointment of being told to wait. Accordingly, it is an odd thing, as James Baldwin describes, to live in a constant state of rage; to know that there is an alternative; to sense that these sorts of premonitions will continue to be ignored.

Leaving Washington, I felt a strange juxtaposition: hope, for more days in which I might feel the advent of change; and despair, because I have no assurance that our circumstances will actually improve.

Still, at the end of this eight-year era, I can’t help but feel sentimental. I remember, quite vividly, the young black boy I was, and now I know who that boy has grown up to be. He has learned that there is a certain beauty in this struggle, if constant rage, too. These moments, despite their inconvenience, come to define one’s sense of worth and being, especially upon realizing the pervasiveness of this condition. Black folks all around the world felt a palpable sense of hope with Obama’s election, despite the knowledge that our bodies continue to be brutalized.

We are leaving the era of our first black president and grappling with the retrenchment of oppression promoted by President-elect Donald Trump. Accordingly, those of us who have been deemed threatening, disposable, or unwelcome by this man,and his supporters have every reason to feel that we do not matter.

Representation is a fickle phenomenon, because more than anything else, it highlights the very prospect of possibility. It pains me to know that our country has lost the opportunity to feel that sense of possibility in our first woman president. But the feeling that someone who looks like you can occupy the most prominent seat of power in the world—no matter how enduring or fleeting—is worth fighting for.

Several months ago, a 106-year-old black woman named Virginia McLaurin was invited to the White House. McLaurin is a longtime resident of Washington, D.C. and volunteer for the United Planning Organization’s Foster Grandparent Program, serving as a foster grandparent and mentor to special-needs students. She reminds me of my grandmother, whose smile lights up the room; whose stories make you feel loved; whose clothes you couldn’t find a wrinkle on if you tried. After greeting and dancing with the President and the First Lady, McLaurin said, “I thought I would never live to get in the White House. And I tell you, I am so happy. A black president! A black wife! And I’m here to celebrate black history. Yeah, that’s what I’m here for.”

Me too, Virginia. Me too.

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