Coming of age in the Obama era
By Emmanuel Morgan, Contributor
“I am forever thankful that Barack Obama’s presidency progressed in lock step with my formative years. When the history books are written, I will personally attest for how this man inspired a generation.”
One thousand three hundred eighty-seven days separated President Barack Obama’s second inauguration and President Donald Trump’s surprising election victory. But while these historical feats are distanced by over 33,000 hours, they’re memorable to me for a seemingly trivial reason: I skipped class on both of those days.
My high school didn’t acknowledge Martin Luther King Day, Jr. Day until after I graduated. So each year, along with a cadre of other black students, I played a parent-sponsored game of “hooky” to honor the legacy of the civil rights hero.
Usually, our flock of 20 or so people migrated to the Harvey B. Gantt Center in downtown Charlotte, a treasure trove of African-American history ranging from the shackles of slaves to authentic civil rights memorabilia. I always enjoyed missing class that day — even if I was tacked with an unexcused absence — because I educated myself on my race. It’s impossible to progress and enact positive change unless we fully understand how far we’ve come.
Our MLK Day tradition instilled in me a sense of pride and obligation to exemplify King’s work in any way I could. Visualizing his efforts emboldened me.
But in 2013, the only exhibition I needed was aired on national television.
By a fortuitous flip of the calendar — or by the provision of Someone higher— the second coronation of our first black president landed on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 2013. The dream the Atlanta preacher, proclaimed in the shadow of the “Great Emancipator,” brightly manifested itself on the steps of the Capitol building decades later. Memories of crackling, burning crosses and the echoes of barking dogs were silenced for a moment when Obama uttered the oath of office with his black hand pressed on the Bible. King’s vision for equality was seemingly realized.
With the reintroduction of Obama, another era of categorization ensued: pundits and citizens alike labeled him as a change of pace, a monumental rupture in a 200-year old tradition of white men leading the nation. The majority had elected him, but many still despised the black man in the White House.
Although the color of his skin distinguishes him from the 43 others who donned the title “President of the United States,” his pigmentation brought me closer to him. For more than two centuries, all of the Presidents looked the same, but for another four years, I’d have one who resembled me.
I’d have one who wasn’t afraid to use my generation’s handshake. I’d have one that would proudly lace up and hoop. I’d have one who had my hair texture. I’d have one who understood me.
Seeing him sworn in on that special day is something I’ll never forget. It captured all of the pride and obligation I felt as a black high school student. The literature, vocabulary words, geometric equations and other schoolwork I missed were frivolous to me.
I had just witnessed history.
Two unfamiliar faces, one unlikely victor
Fast-forward to Nov. 8, 2016, and you’d see that I ditched class again, but for a completely different reason.
On that day, I trekked to New York to cover the election with three other student journalists for my campus media organization. I had to skip my Tuesday class, a political science course, oddly enough. My professor was impressed that I was doing something few college sophomores were doing, and excused me without argument.
That experience somewhat embodied my four years preluding it. It was busy. My 20-hour day started at 7 a.m. in the streets of Harlem and ended at 3 a.m. at a on a rooftop CNN watch party. Around 10 p.m., just before the Electoral Map illuminated into red and blue, the Empire State Building projected images of Trump and Hillary Clinton with their respective state tallies. For a moment, I soaked in the sight knowing my unconventional viewpoint on a historical event would again contrast my classmates’. But soon, the blatant truth sunk in about the candidates.
Neither of them looked like me.
At first, I found it strange that this startled me. I knew Clinton and Trump were white. Eighteen months of divisive headlines reaffirmed that. And it isn’t inherently negative. The whiteness of both presidential hopefuls aligns with the majority of America throughout its relatively brief existence. But for the previous two elections — the ones I vividly remembered— one candidate had been black. And that speaks volumes. For half of my life, I’ve known a different standard – so much so that I’ve grown to expect it.
Emmett Till never saw that. Trayvon Martin caught only glimpses of it. But my adolescence spanned all of it. And I feel honored to have that privilege.
Because of Obama, I was raised in a different era.
I knew sooner or later he wouldn’t be my president anymore, but my hectic schedule suppressed my feelings. High school stresses, the college application process and assimilating to a new environment simultaneously ruled my life while Obama was in office. The daily grind clouded the reality that I lived in an unprecedented time. It wasn’t until it was too late— until I gazed into a mass of lights and steel— that I knew his tenure was dawning to a close.
I didn’t want it to end.
Taking a look back
Near the completion of presidencies, it’s typical to delve into legacies. I could easily gloat about how he upheaved the country from recession, eliminated scores of wanted terrorists and guaranteed universal healthcare for millions. But during my time in high school, a private one nestled in wealth by a lake just 20 minutes north from Charlotte, all I heard about were his shortcomings. My conservative friends defamed Obama at every turn. They questioned his birth, contested his faith and lashed every one of his legislative acts.
Where they saw an enemy, I saw a role model. After countless shootings, ranging from Sandy Hook to Charleston, he reassured me that everything would be okay—and did so through his “Amazing Grace” of stringing words together. When he suffered bitter defeats at the hands of a hostile and unbuckling Congress, he retreated to the drawing board with hopes of modifying his plan, while always keeping the life of the citizen at heart.
“When they went low, he went high.”
When my father died when I was eight-years-old, I made a conscious decision to latch onto black role models. In the 11 years since, I’ve garnered many of these, from editors at nationally recognized publications to my barber. And even though I have not and will probably never meet Obama, I’ve always looked up to him. After countless setbacks in his presidency, after smears to his reputations the likes of which no other president has tolerated, Obama always brushed his shoulders off and came back stronger.
When they went low, he went high.
Obama is the definition of King’s notion that, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” If he can inspire a generation of change-seekers in eight short years, I have no excuse for not inspiring at least one person in however many years I have left in my life.
In the next four to eight years, Obama’s legacy will likely be maimed and scraped until it is unrecognizable. It is undeniable, however, that Obama handed over a country to his successor that is far more successful than when he found it. Still, his policies will be shredded at every opportunity. But his legacy isn’t confined to sheets of paper or locked inside the Senate chambers. It’s embedded in my life’s experiences. And that’s something no politician can change.
I am forever thankful that Barack Obama’s presidency progressed in lock step with my formative years. When the history books are written, I will personally attest for how this man inspired a generation. His presidency can be used as a blueprint for all of my peers to follow.
And that’s something I didn’t learn in school.