The illustrious poet Maya Angelou taught me that most often, people will forget what you say; they may struggle to recall what you did; but if you show up, on purpose, they will never forget how you made them feel.
As I sat Tuesday night in a television studio in the middle of Times Square in New York City, preparing to reflect upon the last eight years of President Barack Obama’s leadership, and more specifically the opportunity to serve as an appointee in his administration, the essence of Aunt Maya's sentiment gripped me.
While some people I spoke to leading up to the farewell address were unsure about what to expect from President Obama's address, it was exactly what I imagined it would be. As he has done so many times in recent history, President Obama delivered an address that was the right mix of highlighting accomplishments, reminding us all of our responsibility to do something and the consequences of failing to take action, not only to each of us individually but to democracy. By reflecting on what we have accomplished as a nation, under his leadership, President Obama implored us all to actively contribute to the pursuit of the democratic ideals that make America unique and strong.
Similar to the way President Obama entered our hearts so many years ago when the then-junior senator from Illinois delivered a speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, the president’s farewell address reflected his vision of what’s possible when we work together, in a manner that was equal parts smart and heart.
Beyond listing the many receipts President Obama offered to illustrate the many ways that he has moved our country and all citizens, including those most often neglected and ignored, closer to full and equitable realization of the American dream, I think it is important to describe the way President Obama makes me feel.
Consider the following:
If I had told you eight years ago that America would reverse a great recession, reboot our auto industry, and unleash the longest stretch of job creation in our history … if I had told you that we would open up a new chapter with the Cuban people, shut down Iran’s nuclear-weapons program without firing a shot, and take out the mastermind of 9/11 … if I had told you that we would win marriage equality, and secure the right to health insurance for another 20 million of our fellow citizens—you might have said our sights were set a little too high.
But that’s what we did. That’s what you did. You were the change. You answered people’s hopes, and because of you, by almost every measure, America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started.
This, as described by our president, is an example of what happens when we have the audacity to hope and dream and work together toward common good.
I can say, as a young African-American man who has struggled with the often unrealistic and unfair expectations America has of black people, that President Obama makes me feel proud to be a free black man. Taking notes from how he continues to operate with grace, often in the face of insensitive comments and sometimes offensive acts, I am inspired by President Obama to be better, especially in the moments when my character is questioned and competence is challenged.
Beyond his brilliance, grace and sartorial sophistication (read: swag), President Obama inspires me to be a better man. The most powerful moment of President Obama’s farewell address, for me, came when he spoke freely about his love of family. Listening to President Obama thank his family for their sacrifice, service and love makes me want to be a better man so that I, too, can show up, whole, and be fully present as a life partner.
"Michelle—for the past 25 years, you’ve been not only my wife and mother of my children, but my best friend,” the president said before pausing to catch his breath and wipe a tear form his face. He continued:
You took on a role you didn’t ask for and made it your own with grace and grit and style and good humor. You made the White House a place that belongs to everybody. And a new generation sets its sights higher because it has you as a role model. You’ve made me proud. You’ve made the country proud.
Malia and Sasha, under the strangest of circumstances, you have become two amazing young women, smart and beautiful, but more importantly, kind and thoughtful and full of passion. You wore the burden of years in the spotlight so easily. Of all that I’ve done in my life, I’m most proud to be your dad.
In addition to being a better man and more thoughtful leader, President Obama's adoration of his daughters makes me excited about the day, God willing, when I will be a father. And it is these feelings that will endure long after pundits are no longer paid to debate the merits of his policy agenda, and well into the period in which history shows this administration to be one of the most effective presidential administrations—if not the most effective—the United States has experienced to date.
And as I prepare to pack up my office, to find time to reflect upon the extreme honor of having been invited by Barack Hussein Obama to serve in his administration as the first-ever director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, I pray that everyone, regardless of whom you voted for or the policy points you love to debate, allows him- or herself to feel what our president has done for each of us and for our country.
For a point of strength, consider how he has touched a generation of young men of color, just like me, who only needed to see President Obama live in ways that encourage, inspire and affirm us so that we, too, can show up in love and in service.
The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.
David J. Johns is executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, which President Barack Obama established in 2012 to strengthen the nation by improving educational outcomes for African Americans of all ages, and to help ensure that all African Americans receive an education that properly prepares them for college, productive careers and satisfying lives. Learn more about the initiative by visiting its website.