I vividly remember the day Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. I was 12 years old, a seventh-grader at a predominately African-American middle school in suburban Atlanta, Georgia. An eruption of joy exploded in my community. I walked into school the morning after the election and felt the difference in everyone’s mood. One of my teachers looked me directly in the eye and exclaimed, “We did it!”
I don’t think I fully understood that enthusiasm at the time. But now, I think about President Obama leaving office, about the fact that he has entered his final 100 days as president, and I cry.
The 2008 election was the first one I was old enough to understand. From the primaries to the general, the process made sense — honestly, thanks in no small part to Nickelodeon’s helpful shorts about “Democracy in the U.S.A.” The conversation in my community regarding the election was also constant, especially among the older generations. I remember right after the election, my great-grandmother (who has since passed) said to me, “I never thought I’d see the day.” When I asked my mother why so many black people immediately rushed to support President Obama, she told me, “When the world around you has constantly tried to tear your community down, it’s important to support the members of your community and build them up.” As a young African-American man, her words resonate even more deeply with me now.
The 2008 election didn’t just elevate Obama to the highest office in the land; it elevated an entire community that has been subjected to oppression since the beginning of this country. It served as a statement that, despite the American government’s historic treatment of African-Americans and other minorities as second-class citizens, it could no longer deny the significance of African-Americans to this country. It was a moment of validation for people whose ancestors built this country, who have always mattered just as much as anyone else but were told for centuries that they did not. It let children of color know that people with skin and hair like theirs could also accomplish the “impossible.”
This is not to say that Obama’s presidency remedied the oppression that people of color face on a daily basis in the United States. One need look no further than the countless unjustified killings of unarmed people of color over the course of the last few years to see how much work still needs to be done. From Trayvon Martin in 2012 to Philando Castile this summer, it’s clear that the fight for complete justice, validation, and recognition of people of color as equal in this country is far from over.
Nevertheless, I believe that the election of President Obama, and his visibility as a strong black leader, played no small role in allowing the continued struggle against police brutality to be pushed to the forefront. From his commentary on how Trayvon Martin could’ve been him, to his decision to immediately travel to the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church following the shootings that occurred there in 2015, President Obama has made his personal connection to these communities, as well as his general empathy for them, clearly known. He has helped force this country to become aware of issues that many had previously chosen to deny, making it impossible for us to push aside this conversation.
In retrospect, it seems fitting that the first election I was aware of would in many ways change the trajectory of my own life. I’m now a politics major at Brandeis University, and I hope to one day run for public office. After watching the 2008 election with such intensity, I realized how intriguing the political process is. Through my formative years, I jumped at opportunities for public service, whether it was something as simple as assisting my local community by donating blood to helping the global community by raising funds for foreign nations affected by disasters. I remember sitting in my tenth-grade AP United States History course and thinking about the importance and potential positive effect of serving the public, and feeling certain that this was the path I wanted to take. President Obama only validated my decision: His tenacity and desire to do so were inspiring.
I speak with people constantly about my plans, and the response has been overwhelmingly supportive. My career choice is never questioned; I'm never told that I can’t pursue this path. I can’t help but wonder how much of that is due to the hard work done and the sacrifices made by our current president — that because he’s reached the peak of the American political structure, no one questions my ability to do so.
Beyond other people’s perceptions of my ability to pursue politics, I feel privileged to have grown up in the era of Obama, an era in which I personally have always believed that I, too, could accomplish what he has. Because I’ve been lucky enough to see someone like me sitting in the Oval Office, it never crossed my mind that I couldn’t do the same.
I can’t help but wonder if I — if we all — have taken for granted the luxury of having an individual so personable, so amicable, as our commander-in-chief. So I want to take a moment to say thank you, President Obama. Thank you for inspiring me and so many others. Thank you for committing your life to public service and elevating our country. Thank you for sharing your family — First Lady Michelle Obama and your daughters Malia and Sasha — with us. Thank you for doing work that is so important, even when it might not have seemed like we appreciated it. Thank you for impacting so many lives. Thank you for impacting me personally. Thank you for pushing through all the negative rhetoric and unsubstantiated criticism, for insuring that the welfare of the American people was always at the forefront.
President Obama, you have left a permanent mark on America, one that will be forever ingrained in our nation. It’s a mark of dedication, of care, and of accomplishment. You are so appreciated. I can’t say it enough.
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