10 Striking Reflections On Obama's Presidency From Black Change-Makers

They highlight many of the moments we will never forget.

Alas, the time has come. 

Thursday marks Barack Obama’s last full day as president, a role he has carried out with respect, dignity and pride over the last eight years.

At the time of his election, Obama symbolized hope and promise for a brighter future, especially to black Americans who desperately sought a leader who not only looked like them, but listened to them. Now, at the end of his presidency, many black Americans look back and continue to wildly embrace the powerful symbolism of having a black family in the White House. Of course, that did not occur without criticism from some who disapproved of his approach to and solutions for issues of race in America (because, after all, black Americans can and should be able to appreciate and share critique of Obama at the same time.)

But as we reflect, we are mostly buried with uplifting and unforgettable memories of Obama’s presidency ― and to black Americans, there are some moments that stand out more than others. So The Huffington Post reached out to a diverse group of notable black writers, influencers and journalists and asked them to share their reflections on any particularly striking moments from Obama’s presidency they will always remember and to highlight what his legacy means to them: 

Janet Mock, Transgender Activist and Author

There was a moment in his 2015 State of the Union address where President Obama stated, ‘I have no more campaigns to run,’ which triggered applause from a group in the chamber, likely the same Republicans who refused to govern during his presidency and work with him on behalf of the country. I felt deeply disrespected at yet another attempt to put Obama ‘in his place.’

Obama let them enjoy their moment before simply stating with such black cool, “I know because I won both of them.” This garnered an even louder applause. He smiled, winked and laughed ― reminding me to never let anyone’s vitriol or attempt to bring me down a notch make me question what I have done, my worth and my own sense of greatness.

Vanessa De Luca, Editor-In-Chief of Essence magazine

I will never forget when President Obama signed into law the Affordable Care Act, which was passed by Congress in 2010. Knowing that this law would have an impact on millions of Americans―and that our commander in chief cared enough about all of us to fight for a plan that would allow people to both survive and thrive―let me know that he was intentional about the mark he wanted to leave on this country.

Damon Young, Editor-in-Chief of Very Smart Brothers

Over the past year ― assisted by the words and work of people like Kirsten West Savali and Kiese Laymon ― I’ve learned to be less hagiographical and more critical when discussing President Obama and assessing his position, his work, and his legacy. This was a necessary evolution; one that I needed to make in order to retain and expand any measure of editorial and personal credibility. 

But, even though the criticism stems from love ― a distilled and pragmatic love that attempts to abstract Barack Obama the transformative figure from President Obama the politician ― it’s still quite difficult to be consistent with it. Because the psychic and spiritual impact he’s had on me is so vast and superseding that I have to work to convince myself that objectivity is useful. Even as I’m gradually allowing myself to admit that he could have done more for back and other vulnerable people while in office, I’m reminded of the first speech he gave the night he was elected President. And I remember how warm I felt while watching him, and how that warmth was accompanied by a dread that something would happen to him; that someone would snatch that feeling and that moment away from us. And I’ve been both inspired by him and fiercely protective of him ever since. 

Kyra Kyles, Editor-In-Chief of Ebony magazine 

President Obama’s highly personal reflection on the killing of Trayvon Martin marked a milestone. He had dealt with race as deftly as he could, given his own (true) statement that ‘I’m not the president of black America. I’m the president of the United States of America.’ However, in that moment when he spoke about this teenager shot down by a self-appointed ‘neighborhood watchman,’ you saw not just a commander-in-chief, but a black father. When he asserted that if he’d had a son, he’d look like Trayvon, it was extremely poignant and compelling. 

I believe it lent momentum to the powerful and needed Black Lives Matter movement, by showing how anyone can be touched and destroyed by this toxic fear of brown men, women and even children. Some of us were still delirious with the promise of a post-racial nation that if the head of a world power could totally empathize with and imagine the loss of his child due to racism and bigotry, there was still much more work to be done. Sadly, as Martin’s death has been followed by far too many others in racially charged encounters with citizens and police, it’s a painful lesson we are still learning as a nation.

Michaela Angela Davis, Image Activist and Writer

It is a small yet profound moment, involving a small boy making a small gesture which had enormous impact. When the President bowed down to let the little black boy feel his hair, he affirmed they are made of the same ‘stuff and illustrated there must have been a time when the president of the United States was once a little black boy just like him. 

It was loving, gentle and yet so powerful. I learned, or rather, was reaffirmed of, the importance of our young people seeing themselves reflected in places of power and dignity. Images are critical to our collective self esteem and in a time when we have witnessed the casual slaughter of young black males, this tender moment was healing.

Rhonesha Byng, Founder of Her Agenda 

Obama is unmatched in terms of intellect, class and realness. In terms of unforgettable moments, it’s hard to decide between the day he won the Election and the moment he spoke about the murder of Trayvon Martin. In my memory it was the first time he acknowledged his vulnerability and humanity as a black man in America on the world stage. 

In a world where black men are often not valued and those black men in positions like Obama are looked at as the exception rather than the standard, it was a major reality check to America that black men are deserving of life, and yes, Obama is a black man.

Donovan Ramsey, Journalist, Demos Emerging Voices Fellow

It all seemed to come crashing down the moment Joe Wilson shouted, ‘You lie’ at President Barack Obama. Halfway into the joint session, Obama stated as a point of clarification that his reforms would not provide undocumented individuals with health care. ‘You lie,’ Wilson yelled in the middle of Obama’ sentence while pointing a rigid finger at the President. In the wake of the event, reporters justifiably honed in on how unprecedented the outburst was. Some Republican lawmakers even censured Wilson for his lack of decorum. Still, the incident shook me in a way I’ve only recently come to understand. 

In violently interrupting the nation’s first black president, Joe Wilson gave us a glimpse into this country’s deep hatred of black progress—something that became more and more evident as time went on.As a student considering a career in public service, the ‘you lie’ moment taught me a powerful lesson: that anti-blackness and white supremacy weren’t byproducts of the American democracy but its organizing forces and that no one man, even one as brilliant and talented as Barack Obama could change that.

Richard Brookshire, Writer and Host of Reparations Podcast

Obama’s 2015 State of the Union clapback at applauding conservatives jeering the President’s declaration that he had no more political campaigns to run - always sticks out in my mind as a favorite of the Obama years. After unparalleled political hostility, birtherism, blatant racism and the constant intentional undermining of his presidential authority - President Obama dismissed once and for all claims of illegitimacy levied by Republicans in 8 words during one of the most significant addresses of his tenure  -  ‘I know ‘cos I won both of em’. Simple, decisive and cutting.

If that moment taught me anything - it’s the universality and political potency of black dialect and code-switching that made this moment so memorable. Speaking his blackness aloud in the face of white angst and disrespect was one of the defining moments of his presidency. And for one shining moment, the world basked in the art of the clapback.

Hari Ziyad, Editor-in-Chief of RaceBaitR

The most unforgettable moment of Barack Obama’s presidency for me was when he told the world he could have been Trayvon Martin. By then, I’d begun to lose whatever faith I had that any president could truly champion the struggles of black folks and make a significant dent in addressing the over four centuries of anti-blackness sanctioned by that office. 

I learned from the Trayvon moment the true and sad depths of the impossible bargain he and so many others attempt to make with whiteness. For all of his failures, I think Obama was earnest in the belief that he could work with White America on its terms and still come out with gains for black people. He gave them so many moments of centering their comfort, and believed it might gain us this one brief relenting, this one moment to feel as though someone with power to make it so believed our lives mattered. And they answered him with pitchforks and knives, and then with Trump. I think that was the first and last time I cried in pity for that man. But I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t try this bargain many times myself. And sometimes I still do. Perhaps it’s because we aren’t given many examples of folks doing anything other than that, of black people refusing this grand and futile bargain with whiteness. But if this moment, and Obama’s presidency, taught me anything, it’s that it’s about time we give those examples to ourselves.

Ifeoma Ike, Strategist, Professor & Co-creator of Black and Brown People Vote

The Obama administration will largely be seen as one that sought to advance hope for the future. But there were also key moments where hope was restored for forgotten generations. In 2010, President Obama signed what is commonly referred to as the Pickford v. Glickman bill, setting in motion a ten-year old settlement directing the United States Department of Agriculture to monetarily restore black and Native American farmers who were denied government loans and subsidies afforded to White farmers. The $1.15 billion fund did not erase the discrimination experienced, the loss of income and homes, and for most, the pain of being completely disenfranchised from the agricultural market. In fact, on average, each black farmer only received about $50,000.

What this fund signified, however, is something we in the legal community call ‘damages,’ a recognition that one ought to be compensated for loss or injury by the party that committed the harm. President Obama, with the power of the pen, simply showed the world what reparations looks like. The lesson is simple: We cannot ‘program’ or ‘policy’ our way to progress. In order for America to achieve equity, elected officials must prioritize repairing black and Native communities for their stolen labor and land, respectively. I am grateful that President Obama left an example for others to follow.



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