In fourth grade, whenever I got bored during Miss Lieber’s social studies class, I would flip to the back of my textbook and look at the pictures lining the back cover. There were 41 portraits, laid out in neat rows, with George Washington in the upper left corner and George H. W. Bush on the bottom right. As a filmstrip clicked away in the background, I would stare at the faces of these men, their names and party affiliations, the years they held office.
I never consciously acknowledged the fact that all these faces were white; it went without saying that they would be. Of course the person who held the nation’s highest office was white, would always be white. It was the same when I watched the news and Entertainment Tonight during dinner with my family every night: Of course the congressman waving to the camera as he headed into a building was white. Of course every movie star was white. Of course, of course, of course. It made sense, right? America belonged to white people. Families like mine were allowed to be here, tolerated as long as we didn’t complain or make trouble, as long as we were appropriately deferent to the white people who so graciously allowed us to occupy their space. But the thought of having power of any kind never crossed our minds; in order to have that, to have a say in how things were actually done, you had to be white. It was so obvious that it wasn’t even worth noting.
That was the way things were from my earliest memories into my adulthood. But then in 2004 — the summer after I graduated from college — an Illinois state senator named Barack Obama gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention. And in that moment, everything changed.
The speech was legendary, the kind of national debut that journalists and historians will analyze for decades. The young Obama talked about his Kenyan father, his Kansan mother, and their unlikely love story. “They would give me an African name,” he said, “Barack, or ‘blessed,’ believing that in a tolerant America, your name is no barrier to success.” Riveted, I watched as he spoke of America’s potential and our common hopes and dreams, his oratory as beautiful as the ideals he described. By the end, I was in tears. It was ostensibly a speech endorsing John Kerry, the Democratic candidate for president that year, but afterwards, no one was talking about John Kerry. Everyone was talking about Barack Obama.
The buzz surrounding him would lead him to an easy victory in a U.S. Senate race a few months later; in a few years, it would carry him to an unlikely run for president and an even unlikelier win. I watched it all with giddy excitement, feeling like he was too good to be true and fearing when the other shoe would drop. But it never did. He was kind. He was likeable. He was charismatic. He was thoughtful, even-tempered, deliberate with his words. He had impeccable credentials, both in his academic pedigree and his professional life. He had an accomplished, gorgeous wife whom he appeared to adore and to view as an equal partner. He had beautiful children for whom he had palpable affection. And damn, could he deliver a speech. I wanted to hang out with him, a feeling I had for zero of his predecessors. And while I always knew how lucky I was to live here — my immigrant parents made sure of this — Barack Obama was the one who drove it home for me, the one who articulated how singular America is and how great its potential. No one has ever made me feel more proud to be an American.
And not only did Obama make me believe in America, he made me realize that America belongs to me — that I have as much of a claim to it as any other citizen. Like me, he was a person of color and the child of an immigrant — and he won the highest office in the land, a feat I did not think possible before I encountered him. But even more than that, he worked to give people like me a seat at the table. He nominated people of color to cabinet positions and the Supreme Court; he made them his personal advisors. He fought to get health insurance for the poor. He wrote about the importance of feminism and fought for equal pay for women. He advocated for LGBT rights. He acknowledged the reality of systemic racism and nominated attorneys general who would go after it. He invited people to the White House whom his predecessors never would have. He was intentional about validating and dignifying people who had historically been overlooked or given only token acknowledgment. Obama made me realize that as a person of color, I have as much of a right to be at the table as anyone else does. America is not just for white people. America is also for me.
Of course, it’s impossible to reflect on Obama’s legacy without the stain of his successor, a man whose campaign centered on the idea of seizing America back for “real Americans,” on reverting us back to the attitude I had internalized as a fourth grader. This is not an accident; some percentage of his supporters feel threatened by the fact that people like me now know that we have the same claim here that they do. Obama’s departure would have saddened me regardless of who followed him, but it does all the more because it’s this particular person.
For me and many others, this transition is excruciating because we now know what it feels like to be treated like full citizens. After eight years of being validated as people, going back to the way things were before feels like an immeasurable loss. Had we gone straight from Bush to Trump, I would probably have been dissatisfied but none the wiser.
But the difference between life before Obama and life under Trump is exactly that: We now know what it feels like to be treated like full citizens. And we know that we deserve to be. So there will be no more quietly accepting the status quo. Obama empowered people like me; we know that America belongs to us too. And this administration and this Congress will not be able to take it away from us without serious consequences.
So, President Obama, all I can say is this: Thank you. Thank you for all you’ve done for this country, especially for those who have historically been denied the same privileges that others have. Thank you for validating and empowering people like me, for helping us see that America is just as much ours as it is everyone else’s. Thank you for making me so proud to be an American. I am deeply indebted to you, and I hope to honor you and your legacy by using my voice — one that matters here, you’ve shown me — to fight like hell for our democracy and those in it who are vulnerable.
Thank you, President Obama. How lucky I am that I got to be alive during your presidency, especially at this stage of my life. I am so grateful.
Photo credit: Pete Souza