Thank You, Mr. President, For Proving My Grandparents Wrong

Dear Mr. President,

As you prepare to leave the presidency and return to private life, I can’t help but reflect on what your presidency has meant to me. As a child, I remember telling my grandparents that I wanted to be president. I remember sitting at the foot of my grandparents’ couch while “Meet the Press” played in the background. I remember the pained look on their faces as they looked at each other wondering which one was going to be the one who crushed a child’s dream. I can’t imagine what that must have felt like for them. I can’t imagine having lived through segregation. I can’t imagine having lived through integration. I can’t imagine having lived through such a dark period, yet still having to tell your grandson that his dreams were out of his reach; not because of merit, but purely because of the pigment of his skin.

Years later, as I prepared to head off to college, I remember listening to your convention speech on that hot summer night. I remember summoning my cousin into the room to watch your speech because something about that moment felt magical. I remember the feeling of hope and civility that emanated from your words. That day mattered. I was born after the deaths of Martin and Malcolm. I was too young to remember Jessie Jackson in his prime. I had never seen someone who looked like me command the respect and attention of such a diverse group of people. This wasn’t a gimmick or a sleight of hand like so many who came before, you were genuine. You were real.

The years passed, and I kept a careful eye on your career. I watched as you were sworn in as the third Black senator since reconstruction. I watched as you tended to the victims of Hurricane Katrina and reminded them that they had not been forgotten. I watched as you positioned yourself as a potential presidential candidate, anxious and excited all at the same time. I watched, anxious that our country truly wasn’t ready for its first Black president, but excited about taking the next step in our country’s troubled history. I’ll admit what every Black person conveniently won’t admit: most of us didn’t actually expect that you would win. We were just proud that you could extend the path laid out by the civil rights leaders that blazed your difficult past.

Then you won Iowa, and it shook up the political calculus. I began to let my guard down and acknowledge that your election to the White House was a political reality. “Yes we can” took on a whole new meaning. Still, I was conflicted. Of course I wanted you to win the presidency and serve our country as the first African American president, you had lived a life worthy of it. You had earned your way into all the right schools. You had been elected by your peers to serve as the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review. You had helped raise a beautiful family that even the Cleavers would be jealous of. You did it the right way. But still, I was conflicted. What if something happened to you? What if you couldn’t live up to the impossibly high expectations that were awaiting you? What if I allowed myself to believe that as a country we were ready for your presidency, only to be crushed, like that child whose grandparents realized that the White House was probably out of reach?

But then you won, and you kept winning, and you began to gain momentum. You vanquished all of your rivals en route to the presidency. You made your way past the faux scandals, all while staying above the fray. You were everything our grandparents talked about when they recited stories about the courage and composure of Jackie Robinson. And all at the exact moment that we as a nation needed it most.

On election day I voted for the first time, aware of the gravity of my vote. Aware of the men and women who had come before me, hoping that they would not end the day crushed—an all too familiar feeling. I locked myself away from the rest of the world that day, waiting for early returns and poll numbers. I tried to distract myself with the assurances of the pundits and the reports of a massive voting surge. As the polls began to close I could feel my anxiety beginning to root itself in my stomach. I was scared that my country would let me down, scared that my grandparents were right. As my college classmates began to assemble at the pub that we so often frequented, I couldn’t help but think of the warnings that my grandfather had given me years before. Advice that had happened so frequently, it had a pop culture name: the Wilder effect. He repeated the phrase that so many African Americans had heard before, “It doesn’t matter what they say they’re going to do, it matters what they do behind those curtains.” What if they didn’t actually vote for you? What if they were just saying what they thought everyone wanted to hear? What if, in spite of all your successes, it still wasn’t enough?

At some point, breaking news came across the screen and my knees began to buckle. In a room filled with the grandchildren of a segregated generation, you, Barack Obama, had been elected President of the United States. This is what men like King died for. I allowed myself to breathe in the historic moment and bask in the earth-shattering victory. I walked outside the pub and collapsed in a corner, emotionally drained and exhausted. I dialed my grandparents, ready to deliver one simple message, “We did it.” I heard something in my grandfather’s voice that night that I had never heard before. I can’t explain it or properly label the emotions in his voice, but it was unlike anything I had ever heard before. I would imagine it was decades of disappointment and a lifetime of lowered expectations blended with the astonishment of electing the first black president.

As I sit here reflecting on what your presidency has meant to me, I think back to that little boy: A boy who believed that anything was possible. A boy who believed that even the White House was within his reach. I think of all the little boys who will grow up never knowing a world without a president who looked like him. I think of the significance of the picture of the little Black boy touching your hair in the oval office. I think of my grandfather, who for so long could only come through the back door of the White House. I think about his daughter, who decades later could finally walk through the front door. I think of the grace with which you carried yourself, even in the most trying times. I think about whether I would have been strong enough to handle the criticism and unyielding attacks on your citizenship. I think about how much pressure you must have felt with the eyes of the world on your every action. I think of how scared you must have been on that cold January morning. Because you believed in the audacity of hope, we can all believe in the boldness of our dreams.

Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you for believing that we were ready for change, before we even knew that it was possible. Thank you for showing the world that we can make progress, even in the most formidable of times. Thank you for crying when we were all crying. Thank you for laughing when we all needed a laugh. Thank you for surpassing expectations. Thank you for admitting when you were wrong. Thank you for doing what you thought was right, especially when it wasn’t popular. Thank you for giving us something to believe in when the only superheroes we had were on our movie screens. Your presidency was by no means perfect, but as you leave office there’s no denying that, in spite of everything, you are a good man, the right man for the world’s most difficult job. I have no idea how long it’ll be before we have another president who looks like you, but because of you, I know that one day we’ll have another.

Thank you, Mr. President, for proving my grandparents wrong.