In the winter of 2007, 10-year-old me bitterly watched then-Senator Barack Obama announce his bid for the presidency from his hometown of Chicago, Illinois. As I sat on my grandmother’s bed, arms folded, I lamented, “He is going to take my job! I want to be the first Black president!” She rubbed my back and with a smile said, “He might actually win, and it would be good for us.” I grimaced. “But don’t worry, you can be the second Black president.”
Although I was not initially onboard with this funny-named candidate, I eventually conceded to my grandmother’s rationale. Maybe he would be good for us. Within no time, I was my field office’s youngest volunteer for his campaign: calling voters, posting signs and canvassing neighborhoods.
On election night in 2008, I celebrated with screams and applause while my mom cried tears of joy and my entire family watched him accumulate 270 electoral votes. On Inauguration Day, I stayed home from school to watch the first person who looked like me take the oath of office, after 42 other men had done the same. For generations, Black parents have told their children to aspire to be the best thing that they could be, even the president of the United States. However, that opportunity, although optimistic, had not been previously attainable. With the election of President Barack Obama, we now know this opportunity is real.
Representation matters, and the visual of a Black first family was undeniably inspiring to African Americans all over the country. However, the Obama message resonated with myself and so many others on a deeper level. ‘Hope’ was not just a slogan, it was our feeling. ‘Change’ was not just an empty campaign promise, it was our premonition. And Obama came through on these commitments, leaving our country better off.
President Obama appointed a record number of women and racial minorities to his cabinet and nominated the nation’s first Hispanic Supreme Court justice. During his administration, there were more LGBTQ ambassadors representing this country around the world than ever before. His army secretary was gay. The first full-time transgender White House employee worked in his West Wing.
I celebrated the president’s successes as though they were my own, and bore the weight of his failures just the same. Despite the harsh criticism President Obama faced for exercising a “feeble” foreign policy, I was reassured by the fact that after nearly eight years of a more hawkish (and failed) pursuit, U.S. special forces — under the president’s command — successfully found and killed Osama bin Laden. Inversely, the debacle induced by the Affordable Care Act, his namesake domestic policy, was incredibly frustrating.
After President Obama’s election, there was talk of America being a “post-racial” society. To many, the new Black commander in chief served as a mark of our country progressing beyond its ugly past of prejudice and racial inequity. However idealistic, this claim was hardly the reality. At the peak of the recession, I heard the Republican congressional leadership vow to make his presidency unsuccessful. I heard a lawmaker shout, “You lie!” in the middle of a speech to a joint session of Congress. Confirmations for President Obama’s nominations stalled due to partisan obstruction that lasted longer than those of any other chief executive. Between 2008 and 2016, the nation became desensitized to the unprecedented lament of a president whose legitimacy was questioned nearly his entire governance.
As a Black man, Obama’s presidency made me feel like I mattered. His assertion that if he had a son, “He would look like Trayvon (Martin)” was poignant to me and so many other African Americans at a time of heightened racial animosity. In light of the many killings of unarmed Black men caught on camera and circulated via mass media, I applauded his efforts to reform police departments around the country. President Obama made himself accessible to at-risk minority youth with his mentoring program My Brother’s Keeper. He made criminal justice reform a household topic, and was the first sitting president to ever visit a prison. Although his economic policies benefited all Americans, Black unemployment in particular was decreased by a third. Obama administration policies have also improved high-school graduation, uninsured and incarceration rates in our community.
In recognizing the effect Barack Obama’s presidency had on my identity as an African American, it is just as important to acknowledge the intersectionality of my identities. As a gay man, I considered it a good start when he banned the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that was keeping so many LGBTQ service members in the closet. Then, when he came out in support of the legalization of same-sex marriage, and in-turn influenced the country to do the same, I felt as though I had a genuine ally in the White House.
President Obama was my president. I loved him because he looked like me, he cared about the same issues I did, and he fought for my interests. In the face of defiance, he actually made America great again. But I love him most because he was what we should all aspire to be: the bigger person. In the era of alternative facts, rising nationalism and heightened division, I will always keep his words near to my heart: “Choose hope over fear.”
Thank you, Mr. President.