Coming of Age in Obama’s America

I was fresh-into-twelve (it must have been the summer between elementary school and middle school) when I remember lying on the couch in our basement with my dad, each of us flipping through a book as we sort-of-watched the Democratic National Convention. We’re multitaskers, my people. Always reading, even when we’re watching TV. It was one of the first few nights of the convention, when Senators and activists and other Important-With-a-Capital-I people get on stage and give really rousing speeches about how great the presidential nominee is (John Kerry, in this case, for a little #tbt action), etc., etc. There are always a few spots for up-and-comers.

My favorite thing about this memory is how real and clear it is, not one of those fake memories that you pretend to have because you want to have a story (I, for example, have little-to-no memory of 9/11 or the following days, and I often feel at a loss for not having those memories, as if it says something negative about me). Nope, this one is clear. I looked up from my book as a great noise erupted from the crowd in the convention hall, all waving placards in a font that’s adorably tacky and very 2004, when you go back and watch it: “OBAMA.” A slim black man walked on stage, waving.

“Who’s that?” I asked my dad.

“Not sure,” he responded. “I think he’s a State Senator in Illinois running for the Senate.”

“ALL of those people are that excited about him?” I queried incredulously (this is before I worked on a campaign and learned that convention workers flood the arena with relevant placards every night, and that most of the people at the convention had never heard of him before).

“I guess.” I was asking too many questions, sorry, Dad.

The name flashed on the screen: “Barack Obama.”

“That’s a really weird name,” I proclaimed. Dad grunted in agreement.

And then came The Speech, and suddenly we weren’t reading at all anymore, just watching this natural orator captivate the crowd.

After the Democratic National Convention that summer, I didn’t give Obama another thought until early 2007, when he announced his candidacy. My dad handed me the paper that morning. “Remember that Senator who gave that great speech at Kerry’s convention? He’s running for President.”

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This isn’t meant to be some poignant, incisive statement on the political, social, and personal implications of what Obama meant for our country. There’s someone slightly better known than me named Ta-Nehisi Coates, and he will probably win some sort of award for writing about it in the Atlantic article “My President was Black.” (If you haven’t read it, quit this amateur hour and head over there, I beg of you.) This is…I don’t know. This is about what it meant to come of age in Obama’s America (did I just do the thing where a character says the movie title as dialogue in the movie and it’s the worst thing ever?), for me. For my peers, maybe. For you, even.

I’ve always been a) outspoken b) liberal-before-I-even-knew-what-liberal-meant and c) political, which made me lots of friends growing up in my conservative town in central Pennsylvania and attending Catholic school. During the 2004 presidential election, I tried to stage an ordered political debate on a Girl Scout field trip to a park. Everyone else just wanted to talk about the pool party that weekend. Sorry, guys. In Fall 2008, I started junior year of high school and AP US History (because they are essentially the same entity), providing an exciting outlet to talk about the impending election. Even though I wasn’t old enough to vote, I was on the Obama Train. I wore an Obama button on my backpack around school, which might not seem like a big thing, but I promise you, when every other kid except maybe one in your school is “a Republican” because their parents are Republican and they don’t have sentient thought yet at 16, that Obama button was a bullseye. I got teased a lot for it. Whatever, about 2/3 of those conservative kids are totally Democrats now based on what they post on Facebook because they went to college and got a little woke, so if you need me, I’ll just be in this corner high-fiving my awkward 16-year-old-self with a smug look on our faces and texting on my flip phone.

Anyway.

I stayed up late on Election Night 2008, watching John King get aroused by his magical touchscreen map as he does every four years, and I have no memory of nerves. It all felt predetermined. As clear as my memory of watching Obama speak for the first time, I remember when the clock turned to 11:00 PM, meaning the polls were closed in California, and they called it. I remember Wolf Blitzer’s face, and the huge graphic of Obama, and “Projected: President of the United States” on the screen. I think I jumped around and cried–the aftermath is blurrier. I was buoyant in school the next day. There were probably haters; I chose to block them out (note: this was a great lesson to learn early re: haters!).

I was 16 was President Obama was inaugurated–we watched that one in AP History Class, too, with snacks. I’m 24 now. The most formative years of my life–the time that brought me from a high school junior to a semi-adult three-years-out post-graduate–have been with Barack Obama at the head of our society, and all that’s meant. And what a fucking honor it’s been.

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Remember how things were in 2008? Gay marriage was legal in like, two states. Comedians could still make rape jokes in routines and nobody would say anything. And though activists were crying out (as they have been, continually, for centuries) that black lives matter, there wasn’t yet Black Lives Matter. Sometimes I’ll watch movies or TV shows from 2008 or even 2011 or 2012, and they will be a joke or a comment or a cliche storyline, and I’ll think that would nevvvvvvvvvver fly now. Our world has changed like quicksilver in the past eight years, rising and flowing and rushing forward. Teenagers these days are woke, y’all, they use terms like “intersectional feminism” and “male fragility” and “cisnormative” with an ease that I find stunning and exciting. When I was 16, I was still writing gross white feminism papers about how Islam is inherently oppressive toward women (I’ve come a long way, Internet. Do not crucify me. I was 16 and had a lot to learn about intersectionality).

These Obama years were my generation’s coming of age. We’re that last group of people born who remember dial-up, who remember when cell phones were unusual, who had enough antiquated technology to marvel at where we are now (voice activated TV remotes?! Are you kidding?! Wasn’t that a Disney Channel Original Movie?!?!?). As we grew, questioned things, began our generation’s fight for justice, we had Obama as our figurehead, a man whose ideas about race, equality, and gender have evolved over time, as well–teaching us that it’s alright to keep growing as we learn more.

I certainly remember the eight years of the Bush presidency, but I wasn’t old enough for it to feel particularly relevant to me. I was 10 when we invaded Iraq. I knew Bush sucked (shoutout to my Democratic mom), but again–it never felt particularly relevant to me in that way that soccer practice or that sleepover did. As President Obama took on leadership of our nation’s politics, I entered into those politics as an active participant for the first time. My first presidential election was in 2012, when I filled out my absentee ballot of the steps of the University of Cape Town during my time abroad. I cried as I filled that thing out. I’m particularly susceptible to big moments of “meaning” and whew–participating in my own democracy from half a world away in a country less than 20 years out of apartheid was something heavy.

The best words I’ve found to describe how’s it felt to have Obama as our president throughout these tumultuous eight years are that I’ve always felt proud and I’ve always felt safe. No matter what ground-shaking tragedy was in the news, I felt deeply ok knowing that Barack Obama was our president, and that he was going to make a statement in the White House Press Room and that it would just all be ok. After Newtown. After Orlando. After the election. He’s made me feel safe in an unsafe world, and proud to be an American when that is increasingly difficult. It’s the same way I feel about Lin-Manuel Miranda being an American, honestly; no matter how much of a surreal fiction this place can feel, goddammit, at the end of the day, Barack Obama and Lin-Manuel Miranda also wake up every day in this country, and that makes it better. Cue High School Musical‘s “We’re All In This Together.”

From the age of 16 until now, at 24, I’ve been able to look to the presidency with awe, admiration, and respect. With pride. I’ve had the privilege of growing up in an age that felt like it was racing toward progress with zest and zeal. I’ve been led and inspired by a man whose roots are in community organizer, who started his career in the neighborhoods of Chicago, a man who believes in the power of the grassroots. Remember when they used to make fun of him for that? For being a community organizer?

And so here we are, in the last two days of this amazing man’s presidency. I think about sitting in high school history class as I watched him take the Oath of Office eight years ago, where I was then and where I am now. How I fought hard to continue his vision and elect our first female president, and lost. How I’ll spend the first day of the new presidency in the streets with tens of thousands of women and allies in the streets of DC, because I know it’s what I have to do.

I’m not going to write about what’s happening right now–what’s about to happen. How that vision of a progressive, inclusive country I thought I belonged to imploded on the night of November 8th. That’s for another post. There’s a lot there, and I can’t handle it all right now. There’s a lot of work to be done. There’s a lot of work to be done.

I don’t know what I’m trying to articulate, other than the fact that it’s been a privilege, and it’s been an honor, to be a part of this man’s America. To be an American with him. To come of age with our young nation. Yes, we did. Yes, we can. Yes, we will. Thanks, Obama.

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