It happened just like I knew it would.
With a smile and a final wave to the people of Chicago, President Barack Obama confidently strode across the stage at McCormick Place on Tuesday and out the door. His wife, Michelle, the embodiment of #BlackGirlMagic, was right by his side.
I didn’t even try to stop the tears from falling.
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Some people might think it’s silly, particularly in the capital of California, to be crying over a politician. And, believe me, I have no illusions; Obama is a politician in every sense of the word.
But to black Americans, indeed to every of group of historically marginalized Americans, he was so much more.
His presidency was the equivalent of dropping a boulder in a lake that seemed still on the surface, but was roiling underneath. The Obamas were a disruptive force to the country, and we’re still feeling the waves.
“Yes, our progress has been uneven,” Obama said in his farewell address. “The work of democracy has always been hard. It’s always been contentious. Sometimes it’s been bloody.”
So bloody that Obama was the black president I never expected to see in my lifetime. Certainly not in the lifetime of my parents, both of whom were born years before schools were desegregated and black folks were assured the right to vote.
But there he was in 2008, the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas, delivering a soaring victory speech on an unusually balmy November night in Chicago’s Grant Park. I was less than 200 miles away in Indianapolis, whispering in disbelief with my mom over the phone, both of us scared he would get assassinated before he ever took office.
Now, after eight years, Obama is leaving. And, in my darker moments, I worry I’ll never see another president like him. Tupac Shakur rapped it back in 1992, but I don’t want to believe it. “Although it seems heaven sent, we ain’t ready, to see a black president.”
All of the evidence is certainly there.
The months of tea party protests with angry white people carrying minstrel-style effigies of Obama hanging from a noose. The time when South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson yelled “You lie!” while Obama was addressing a joint session of Congress.
The birther conspiracy theory, pushed by now President-elect Donald Trump. Not to mention the “jokes” from right-wing media about the Obamas resembling apes and being from the jungle.
Many people, I’m sure, will dismiss these incidents as mere reactions to Obama’s policies. But that’s not true. Looking back, it’s clear the president was judged most often by the color of his skin, not what he did politically.
Not unlike Hillary Clinton refusing to sit in the background as first lady, Obama didn’t know his “place,” as Southerners would say. And a whole lot of people, already uneasy with the multiculturalism taking over America, didn’t like that.
“After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America. And such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic,” Obama told the nation, hours after white supremacist Dylann Roof was sentenced to death for killing nine black churchgoers in South Carolina. “Race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society.”
Obama wore the mantle of his blackness awkwardly at first, trying to be black, but not too black. That, of course, pleased no one, least of all black people. But by the second term of his presidency, he’d clearly given up on that strategy. In a way, he had no choice.
The 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager in Florida by an overzealous neighborhood watch captain, clearly rocked the president. He admitted that “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
Then in 2014 another black teenager, Michael Brown, was killed by a white cop in Ferguson, Mo., pitting protesters against police to the nation’s horror. “In too many communities around the country, a gulf of mistrust exists between local residents and law enforcement,” Obama said at the time. “Too many young men of color feel targeted by law enforcement – guilty of walking while black or driving while black, judged by stereotypes.”
Long-simmering racial tensions boiled over at this very acknowledgment of the truth. Black Lives Matter became a household phrase, to the annoyance of police departments everywhere. Obama and his Department of Justice answered calls for criminal justice reform, pushing for more transparency from police – the latest example being Chicago – and exploring ways to keep young black men from being killed and locked up in disproportionate numbers.
Then, in 2015, came the funeral for the parishioners killed at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. I’ll never forget the look of surprise and delight on the faces of the pastors as Obama sang “Amazing Grace.”
That was a long day that began with the U.S. Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage. Later that night, his administration bathed the White House in rainbow colors, which set off a backlash of its own with Republican governors, including Vice President-elect Mike Pence, signing laws protecting the rights of Christians to discriminate against gay and transgender people.
And then in 2016, the Obama administration decided to intervene in the Standing Rock protest, coming down on the side of American Indians who wanted to protect their sovereign land.
Add that to his pledges to shield Dreamers from deportation, to allow women to serve in combat, and gay and transgender people to serve openly in the military, and suddenly Obama became the president for the America that looks like California. The America of the future.
But older white Americans used to calling the shots and dictating culture couldn’t take the relentless waves of change coming at them. A black man as president was one thing. A black president willing to stand up for black people and other marginalized communities, and demand everyone in the country do the same, was quite another.
It needed to happen, though. And the rest of us needed to witness it.
Obama – with an assist from Michelle opening the White House to everyone from rap stars to undocumented immigrants to the cast of “Hamilton” – did something only he could do. He made real the art of the possible.
The Obama administration’s legacy is that millions of Americans have more rights and respect today than when he took office. And those who don’t, feel validated in demanding them.
This relentless expectation of equal treatment, which isn’t going away with a Trump presidency, is where my fear gives way to hope.
“Let me tell you, this generation coming up – unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic – I’ve seen you in every corner of the country,” Obama said. “You believe in a fair, and just, and inclusive America. You know that constant change has been America’s hallmark; that it’s not something to fear but something to embrace … You’ll soon outnumber all of us, and I believe as a result the future is in good hands.”
But the price for this inspiration has been high. Older white voters, in a futile attempt to stop the future from coming, elected Trump. A man endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan. Trump’s rise set off a wave of its own, of hate crimes directed at people of color, women and transgender people.
“For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back,” Obama cautioned. “But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion.”
It’s hard being the first anything. But Obama was the martyr, perhaps the one we needed to be our first black president. He was willing to take the abuse so the black person who might someday succeed him won’t have to deal with it.
It’s not every president who can say he fundamentally changed the way Americans think of themselves, who inspired a new sense of self-worth among millions of minorities. But Obama? Yes he did.