I told him how, when he was a baby, he went to daycare in a federal building, so there was a picture of the president on the wall in the entry, and on the last day Obama was president, I took a picture of myself holding him in front of that picture, as I mourned that soon a picture of Donald Trump would go up. But, we told him, laughing, they never did put a picture of Trump up over the next seven months we went there every day.
My mother told him how both Barack and Michelle Obama read interesting books and listened to lots of different kinds of music, and used their positions to tell people about those books and music.
We told him that sometimes we were frustrated with President Obama—we thought he should push harder and do more—but we always thought he was a good man, that a lot of our frustrations with him came from his belief that people were better than we thought they were, and his attempts to get people to act on that goodness he believed in. We said we thought maybe he had changed his mind a little about how bad people could be.
Where I landed in trying to explain my feelings to my child is this: “I didn’t always agree with him, but it was always an honor to have him as president.”
When we got to the museum, one of the first things we saw in the exhibit was a photograph of Michelle Obama posing for her portrait. That photo was in itself completely stunning. I pulled out my phone and showed my son the famous picture of the little Black girl gazing in awe at the finished portrait, and I told him how too often, Black women have not been shown as beautiful and special and powerful, and that for Black girls and women, seeing Michelle Obama not just be all of those things but get recognition for being all of those things had been important.
When he’s a little older, he should read Ta-Nehisi Coates on that subject, how, “Michelle Obama is beautiful in the way that black people know themselves to be. Her prominence as first lady directly attacks a poison that diminishes black girls from the moment they are capable of opening a magazine or turning on a television.” He should read Tressie McMillan Cottom on beauty. But for now, it’s a start that he has seen Michelle Obama’s regal portrait and heard that its existence is an important corrective to something wrong.
I’m going to be honest: My child was not all that interested in the portraits. The next room’s little portraits of “leadership” drawn mostly by kids interested him more. The towering Dale Chihuly glass sculpture elsewhere in the museum still more, until his attention turned to a need for a snack. But now he knows some things he didn’t before. And I was honestly stunned by the depth of my own feeling, discovered in the act of trying to give him some basic information.
I was always a little unwilling when confronted with the magnetism other people felt so strongly in Obama. In 2008, living in New Hampshire and regularly attending campaign events, I more than once described my feelings at Obama events as akin to watching an orgy: It was clear that other people were feeling something very intense, but I was on the outside with my eyebrows slightly raised. But on the day of the New Hampshire primary, in the wake of his Iowa caucus win, Obama held a rally at Dartmouth College, and as his lead-in song, U2’s “City of Blinding Lights,” played, I felt a fervent certainty that he was going to win, that I was seeing history made, and I was overwhelmed. On Election Night 2008, I was deeply frustrated about the Democrats who should have won and didn’t, and irritated that Obama hadn’t made more of an effort to bring some of them along with him. But when he spoke, delivering that exquisitely optimistic speech, so sure of a corner being turned in U.S. history that it is painful to watch from a post-Trump vantage point, I watched the faces in the crowd, especially the faces of older Black people watching this history be made, especially-especially a brief glimpse of Jesse Jackson, a candidate my family had campaigned for when I was a child, standing in the crowd, tears on his face—as I saw all that, once again I was overcome by the weight of the history I was watching and the joy of the moment.
Will looking back on the optimism that even the unwilling among us felt in those early days of Obama ever be anything but bittersweet, given what came after? But it happened. Our president was Black and he was brilliant and he was good. And may we never lose sight of the possibility of change and the power of those moments, even if, as they’re happening, we can already see the ugliness gathering on the horizon.
Election season overtime is finally winding down, so Democratic operative Joe Sudbay joins David Nir on The Downballot as a guest-host this week to recap some of the last results that have just trickled in. At the top of the list is the race for Arizona attorney general, where Democrat Kris Mayes has a 510-vote lead with all ballots counted (a mandatory recount is unlikely to change the outcome). Also on the agenda is Arizona’s successful Proposition 308, which will allow students to receive financial aid regardless of immigration status.
Over in California, Democrats just took control of the boards of supervisors in two huge counties, Riverside and Orange—in the case of the latter, for the first time since 1976. Joe and David also discuss which Democratic candidates who fell just short this year they’d like to see try again in 2024, and what the GOP’s very skinny House majority means for Kevin McCarthy’s prospects as speaker.