My Son’s Only President: Obama Let Black Children See Their Own Possibilities

Barack Hussein Obama is the only president my 5-year-old son has ever known. Roby was born witnessing his own possibilities.

Robeson Perry, 5, with President Barack Obama, at Trick or Treat at the White House on Oct. 31, 2016
Robeson Perry, 5, with President Barack Obama, at Trick or Treat at the White House on Oct. 31, 2016 Andre Perry

This past Halloween, my son Robeson met President Barack Obama face-to-face at Trick or Treat at the White House.

Ditching the mask of his Transformers costume, Roby approached Obama with waves and a wide, gapped-tooth smile that exposed his glee inside.

While handing presidential candy to Roby, President Obama asked, “Where’s your teeth?” Roby continued to smile with excitement before moving on to first lady Michelle.

While most are focused on the next presidency, I’m reflective about the one that’s coming to a close. To protect myself from the psychological stress of this tumultuous election, I’ll stay centered on those memories.

There are moments that confirm our existence in the world. The seconds Obama rubbed Roby’s head in the same manner that I do confirmed more for me than for my son.

Barack Hussein Obama is the only president my 5-year-old son (about to be 6) has ever known. Roby was born witnessing his own possibilities. Certainly, touching the president concretized that he, too, could become POTUS. He doesn’t (yet) have the baggage of living with the 43 white male presidents before Obama.

For a few moments, I regressed and asked myself, “When will this happen again?” But then I realized, my son and the other children who were born into my ancestors’ realized dreams will have very different expectations. Robeson will demand representation with a very different energy than I ever could.

Just as Roby was born in his ancestors’ dreams, he also shares their nightmares. Roby absorbs Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Alton Sterling.

We live in New Orleans where you live and die in disparities. He’s fully cognizant of the racialized spaces of schools, events and social circles. Roby even caught Confederate-flag Mardi Gras beads during Mardi Gras last year. My son copes with institutional racism that existed under a black president.

I have “the conversation” over and over again. But Roby doesn’t imagine or hope for a seat at the table; he truly has one already claimed.

My son understands what’s at stake with this election. As I rubbed Roby’s head while exiting the White House grounds, Roby asked, “Why can’t Obama be president again?” (In my head, I was asking the same thing.)

Children feel the stress that adults project, and for almost two years, projecting fear has been the chief campaign strategy for both parties. Advertising the personal faults of candidates can’t be healthy for children, and the “Sky will fall,” “All or nothing” rhetoric is just false.

An aside: Black folk have always been in danger from a “stable,” “respectable” democracy. All this talk about the potential of a Trump victory or loss to put democracy at risk ignores the history of last week, let alone the deep history of blacks’ exclusion from it. We have to stop with the hyperbole. The safety blanket of democracy won’t be given to you, regardless of outcome.

I’m under no illusion that electing the first female president will smash the “isms” Obama was ostensibly unable to destroy.

First Lady Michelle Obama with Robeson Perry, 5, at Trick or Treat at the White House, Oct. 31, 2016
First lady Michelle Obama with Robeson Perry, 5, at Trick or Treat at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 31, 2016Andre Perry

But what was confirming for me during the trip to the White House was that greater representation is needed in the position. The country needs women, Latinos, Asians, atheists, Jews and Muslims to serve in the highest office of the land.

The seeds of authentic representation that were planted for my son may not bear fruit till later, but they’ve been planted. Roby is living with a different psychology of really seeing himself in the seat of power from prior generations.

My hope for Roby is that he fights for people not represented. Obama proved that we can elect someone other than a white man. But there is always a danger that people will use their gender, race or religion as a mask to deliver the same policies as the 43 presidents before Obama.

I loved that Roby didn’t want to wear a mask to meet the president. And I also love that Obama didn’t wear a costume. He looked good in his sweater and slim-fit jeans.

I don’t know what effects being born in Obama’s first term will have on my son or other children. Roby has a unique privilege of seeing blackness in himself, his father, Michael Brown, Alton Sterling and the president of the United States all at the same time. I just know that I have to protect my son’s seat at the table so the rest of us can find out.

Editor’s note: Join the conversation later on Andre Perry’s radio show, Free College, hosted Tuesdays on WBOK1230 in New Orleans at 3 p.m. Central/4 p.m. Eastern 504-260-9265.

This story was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, in partnership with The Root.

Andre Perry, Ph.D., is the former founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. Previously, Perry served as CEO of the Capital One-University of New Orleans Charter Network.

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