It’s a tall task to assess the entirety of President Barack Obama’s two terms in office, to cull an ultimate judgment from all the success and missteps of his administration, and then measure that against the unprecedented obstructions it faced.
One can point to the decline in deficit and the growth of gross domestic product, or to the country’s continued economic expansion in step with a drop in unemployment rates. Or one can highlight the GOP’s refusal to cooperate with Obama as a means to invalidate his ameliorative policies and seek firm control of the House and Senate, or maybe discuss the devolution and fracturing of the Republican base, and the way in which that handicapped even those politicians on the other side of the aisle who wanted to compromise for the greater good. Or one could trumpet the Affordable Care Act as well as the shift in national attitudes and policy regarding gay marriage. One could also cast a somber retrospective glance at the controversial assassination of Osama bin Laden, the stain of drone strikes and ongoing infringements on individual civil liberties.
In reflecting on Obama’s presidency, you cannot get a feel for an era simply by rote recitation of objective fact. To get a sense of history, you need to engage in a perspectivism that distills a plethora of individual testimonials down to something that approximates truth. We tried that here.
I reached out to a wide swath of black Americans from across the socioeconomic spectrum and conducted interviews with around 30 of them, then chose the people who exhibited the most enthusiasm and thoughtfulness. They came from lower-class, middle-class and upper-middle-class backgrounds. They varied from businesspeople to entertainers, thinkers, academics, cartoonists, natural healers, writers and arts programmers. They hailed from all over the country, from Cleveland to Washington, D.C., from Atlanta to Texas, from Brooklyn, N.Y., to North Carolina, from St. Louis to Iowa.
I asked for their reflections on and insights into having had eight years of President Obama in office and a black first family in the White House—the political and psychological ramifications, the effect on race relations, the legacy of Obama’s two terms—and I made an effort not to lead anyone to any answers because what I really wanted was a natural range of opinions, thoughts and insights.
In the aftermath, it has been provocative to sift through all of the reflections, which have underscored just how wide is the span of black identity and perspective, as well as some of the core commonalities regardless of that width.
I spoke with Dierdre Lockette, an accounting clerk and Beyoncé enthusiast; Bomani Jones, co-host of ESPN’s Highly Questionable and host of The Right Time With Bomani Jones; Randy Richards, cartoonist; De’Shawn Winslow, educator; Kecia Lynn, writer and editor; Shaka King, filmmaker (Newlyweeds, Mulignans); Raheem Dawodu, communications specialist; Monty Trice, former engineer and current businessman; Andre Perry, arts programmer and essayist; and Shanti Roundtree, writer, intellectual and natural healer.
Obama’s Election in 2008
How did he get into the White House? It seemed impossible. It made the inconceivable conceivable for a generation. We really believed we changed the world, and that there was more to come.
I just couldn’t grasp the idea America was going to elect a black president until the very end. How did he get into the White House? A black man can barely get into my condo building! So there was a real sense of optimism, albeit a qualified optimism. It’s one thing for a segment of white America to dislike black people … but just maybe if you’re so good at what you do, in spite of that contempt, people might be willing to vote for you—or on the more local scale, to support you regardless of your background or skin color, when you demonstrate talent and ability.
The narrative on which this country was founded—not “all men are created equal,” but “all white men are created equal, and everyone who isn’t a white man is a subject”—is so deep, and so many people, regardless of race, are invested in it, that when a black person arrives who not only does not fit the narrative but refuses to submit to it, they literally don’t know what to do about that person. It’s bad enough when we’re talking about Fortune 500 boardrooms, research laboratories and most Silicon Valley IT shops. Those are pretty rarefied spots for black people, certainly. The White House, though? That’s a whole new level of uppity.
I grew up in a very black, working-class town in Prince George’s County, [Md.,] and I had already voted in elections thanks to my Nigerian mom, who made it known I had to vote or die … literally. The morning I voted for Obama, I remember a line that looked to be a mile long. I’d been voting for six years and was able to get in and out of the polling station in five minutes. This day was different.
I watched the results at home with my family, and we all just hugged each other and shed tears. Not only a black man, but a son of Africa, was president of the United States. For the first time, we did it. My generation. We beat the established Democratic Party candidate, then we beat an established white male political institution in the general election. And we really believed we changed the world, and that there was more to come.
I remembered being jarred by the racist dog whistles, and not just from Republicans. Bill and Hillary [Clinton] shocked me how they worked the racist wink and nod with the white middle-class. I was all in for sure then. Not just because he was black, but because Barack seemed more candid and honest about the challenges our country was facing. He made sure we knew it was going to take effort from everyone, and teamwork always draws me in.
I’m a pretty big 2Pac fan, and I always remember his line, “Although it seems heaven-sent, we ain’t ready to have a black president.” I was 14 when he said that. I was taking gifted classes and well on my way to being the first person in my family to go to college. But even then, at that age, I felt like I’d never see a black president in my lifetime. It seemed impossible. Now America can be split into two eras for black folk: a time when a black president seemed like mere fantasy, and a time when it seemed as normal and American as apple pie. It made the inconceivable conceivable for a generation. For the future.