“If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”
It was a dream come true and a moment I would never forget.
Barack Hussein Obama, a Black man, was giving his victory speech after being officially declared the next president of the United States on November 4th, 2008. I was 17 years old at the time living in Houston, Texas and I can still remember how consequential his election was in my red state.
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Most of my white teachers were supporting Obama’s challenger, the late Senator John McCain, and many made it a point to tell the majority of my Black and Latino classmates how “it wasn’t about race, but about democracy.”
“He’s not ready,” they told us. “This country isn’t ready.”
They were wrong.
My belief in Obama was the same I had in Santa Claus as a child. He spoke with swagger, honesty, and kindness. He was the first Black man in national politics that I felt I could emulate. He was everything that my parents wanted in me that I could now envision in real time. He was the smartest guy in his class that loved to read and went to an Ivy League school like I would eventually do. That night, the Obamas became the epitome of Black excellence for my generation. He was not just a figment of my imagination, but a true embodiment of triumph for all Black men in the living flesh.
“It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.”
When I watched him speak those words with confidence alongside the equally inspiring Michelle Obama and their two daughters in Chicago’s Grant Park, I felt my world change instantly. I felt empowered and that my possibilities were endless. After years of reading history books and being told that a Black man could never be president — here was someone defying that. My entire neighborhood turned into the kind of excitement you would see during a Super Bowl celebration — Black America had finally had one of our own in the highest office in the land.
“There will be setbacks and false starts. There are many who won’t agree with every decision or policy I make as President, and we know that government can’t solve every problem.”
Looking back 10 years later, Obama had warned us. Now at age 27, and old enough to have voted for him in his reelection and against Donald Trump in 2016, the excitement I once had for politics is now more complicated. Back then, I ran for senior class president, and won, was accept to an Ivy League college, and had thoughts of one day running for office just like Obama. But after eight years of witnessing the racist political backlash he faced and seeing the nation subsequently become even more divided, my aspirations have all but dampened. The movement many Black people thought was going to happen right away and transport us into better days has simply faded away with time.
To be a Black man in America today is just as much of a struggle (if not more) then before Obama got elected. The only difference is that having him in the White House made race a permanent national conversation that couldn’t be ignored. In some ways, this led to ongoing honest dialogues about the mistreatment of Black people in our country. However, in many contentious ways, it made Black men a larger target of public hate given that our growing visible achievement posed a threat to white supremacy. The election of Donald Trump as Obama’s presidential predecessor stands as the clearest example of white rage against what was becoming a more progressive country.
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“America, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do.”
One thing Barack Obama gave us the night he as elected President was hope. With the upcoming midterm election only days away, I find myself having some of the same enthusiasm I had 10 years ago. When I saw Obama on stage backing Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum last week, it was a full circle moment. If elected, Gillum would become the first Black governor of Florida, a battleground state that is known for its conservative policies. Watching our nation’s first Black president stand beside another Black man running for office in a major midterm race was refreshing.
“We need leaders who will actually stand up for what’s right, regardless of party,” Obama said to a packed crowd about Gillum. “Leaders who represent the best of the American spirit. Patriots who will stand up for anyone whose fundamental rights are at stake.”
Like with all major milestones within our collective Black movement, Obama’s presidency reminded us that with great moments come even more reason to march on till victory is won. Just like Rev. Jesse Jackson’s “Keep Hope Alive” battle cry which peaked my parent’s interests, “yes we can” still reminds me that change can and will still come.
Ernest Owens is the Editor of Philadelphia magazine’s G Philly and CEO of Ernest Media Empire, LLC. The award-winning journalist has written for USA Today, NBC News, BET, HuffPost and several other major publications. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram and ernestowens.com