When I was around the age of 4 years old, I would go to my grandma’s house while my parents worked. Since I went there very early in the morning, I was usually greeted with pancakes or french toast. She would sit in her chair and watch her “stories” while I would read a stack of books or magazines I brought over. My brother had a collection of books that my mom gave him but every now and then I would sneak a peek at the Jet Beauty of the Week of that was laying around. Hey, those little bios next to the pictures were great reading exercises. Don’t judge me. After she got done watching her shows, I would watch cartoons until my dad arrived to take me home.
[Underrated candy by the way. I stand by this. IDC]
What I loved most, even more than the peanut butter candy she used to give me, were the anecdotes. You could get a coke for a nickel when you were a kid, granny!? No way! She told me stories about how things used to be to make me appreciate how far my family has come along. We weren’t wealthy by any means but at this point in my life, my parents were well off. These moments are some of the fondest memories of my life as a whole. It cemented my grandma’s place as my favorite person ever.
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. That June, I turned 5. This made me eligible for some stupid thing called Kindergarten. Needless to say, I was disappointed this arrangement would be coming to an end.
So on one Sunday afternoon in August, my mom helped me pack my backpack and lunchbox. This comment may age me, but I believe Living Single premiered that evening.
My first day of Kindergarten was tragic. For our “fun” activity, we were given a paper with a lined edge and the outline of a city skyline. We colored that in. On a Popsicle stick was a cardboard superman. We were to cut a slit into the paper following the line and insert Superman. This would give the effect of him flying across the sky. My father, being the man he is, bought me the wrong scissors. (Long story short, at this stage in my life I didn’t know if I was left or right handed so he got me a pair of crappy scissors AND they were plastic). This exercise was to teach us to cut in a straight line. My paper ripped. My Superman didn’t fly. I threw a tantrum.
My tantrum didn’t last long because after naptime (which was lit, by the way, we need this as adults) I knew I had a bag of cheese curls waiting on me. Well, a girl in my class ate my bag AND hers because she got them “mixed up”. Yep, that’s it. I’m out. I threw a tantrum so massive that my dad was called and I left early.
After pleading with my dad to let me stay home, I conceded and went to school that next morning. The teacher decided to ask us the good ol question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
First kid: NFL player
Second kid: An astronaut
Third kid: I wanna go to the NBA
Fourth kid: A doctor
Fifth kid: I want to break the homerun record!
Finally, we got to me. “What about you, Ronnie?”.
“I want to be the President”. My teacher looked at me, flashed a grin and said: “Don’t you want to pick something a little more realistic?”.
This moment stuck with me all my life. I never shared this story with my parents because I didn’t realize the implications until I was much older. For some reason, I don’t think it was intended to be malicious, nor was it necessarily wrong at that point. Little black boys like me don’t grow up to be president. Even in her defense, kid 1 and 3 were white. Kid 2 and 4 were white. So was kid 5, he was the class clown, not that it’s pertinent information. Black kids I knew didn’t aspire to be the president. Not to saying black kids I knew weren’t aiming high, I just didn’t know anybody interested in a political office of any kind. From that moment on, it made me believe that this was an impossible feat. So was she wrong to tell me to think of another occupation? I still juggle with that to this day.
It didn’t matter that the presidency didn’t seem like a realistic aspiration, I was still fascinated by the presidency. My older brother’s favorite subject in school was history so this rubbed off on me also. Being the annoying little brother that I was, I used to hover over his shoulder while he did his homework. I began reading his textbooks. I tried to soak up all the information I could. One day I came home to one of the greatest gifts ever: The World Book Encyclopedia. I instantly went and found every president I could find, starting from George Washington to HW. I came to the conclusion that my favorite president was FDR. The most interesting president was his distant cousin Teddy. My least favorite president was Andrew Jackson. The most important president was honest Abe. The first celeb president was JFK. The only president to serve two nonconsecutive terms was Grover Cleveland. The shortest presidential term was William Henry Harrison. It was 32 days. He was also likely the first president to be assassinated but that’s a story for another day. The most underrated president is Jimmy Carter. My fascination with former presidents led me to one observation, which was a very obvious one: None of the presidents were black. [Well, John Hanson was the President under the Articles of Confederation but considering that government was overhauled I don’t think that’s the best example to use here.].
Now, we fast forward to high school. All the arbitrary knowledge I stored away is finally useful for my Government class. That class was incredibly boring and I never studied. I still got an A, though, so hi Mom, if you’re reading. One assignment, in particular, is noteworthy. We had an assignment on parliamentary procedure. We were to write a report on how business is conducted during Congressional hearings. How would we achieve this? We had to go home and watch C-Span for a week. Being a high school student, nothing was less exciting than having to watch C-Span.
As I watched, I saw a young senator from Illinois speak. His name was Barack Obama. I suddenly became interested. Mostly, because his name was “Barack Obama”. As I kept watching, I saw a man who commanded the floor. I was quite impressed. Then it hit me why I recognized his name.
I wasn’t old enough to vote at this time but I did watch the DNC. Rock the Vote was a big thing thanks to Puff Daddy. I remember him interviewing the keynote speaker, who just so happened to be State Senator Barack Obama, and told him”When you want to be the President of the United States, you call me…You’re on to something kid”. Barack flashed his smile and gave him a dap. This wasn’t some “Oh you’re far too kind” modest smile, this was a smile showing the thought had crossed his mind.
Now, I’m college, doing the things college kids do. I took a few political science classes but my goal of law school and politics shifted. I tried to stay active on campus to gain the “real world experience” needed for politics but some backhanded dealing from my SGA totally discouraged me. On a broader scale, I did not envy the guy who had to come clean up the mess left by the Bush Administration.
The two candidates would be a familiar name and a not-so-familiar one. John McCain and Barack Obama. The messages of these two candidates couldn’t be more different. McCain presented himself as the iron-fist veteran, who was ready to uphold America’s standards. Barack was different. Barack’s message ignited the spirit of my generation. For the first time ever, I felt like I could listen to and believe what a candidate was telling me. He seemed earnest. He was upfront about the hard road ahead but assured us that everything would be alright.
With keywords such as “Hope”, “Change”, and “Yes We Can”, I was hooked. I knew who I was casting my first vote for.
November 4th, 2008, I would leave the computer lab after rushing to finish my computer science project. I ran to my apartment for a quick nap, showered, and threw on some clothes. I packed my bookbag, turned on Q-Tip’s The Renaissance and walked to the Student Rec Center, where I was registered to vote. My homies Ced was there, interviewing people about who they were voting for.
My response was “I care about education. I think it’s a ground-up approach. So I’m voting for the president who cares about education and our future. Barack Obama”. With pride, I walked around campus wearing my “I voted” sticker. There was a secret head nod shared that day. From fellow students to custodians, and everybody in between, you could sense pride and optimism.
My roommates and I huddled in front of the TV to watch the results of the election. As the votes rolled in for each state, we all began to feel that feeling. Your stomach tightened. Your palms got sweaty. You were rocking back and forth with anticipation. Finally, it was determined that we had a new president-elect: Senator Barack Obama.
You could instantly hear “My President is Black” blasting through the speakers throughout my apartment complex. Being the 20-somethings we were, we decided to take it to the streets. We drove around campus blasting Jeezy and Nas. This is one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever felt in my life and I don’t think I’ve felt that way since then. Has America turned over a new leaf? Have we finally overcome 400 years of oppression? Those questions didn’t matter at that moment. We just knew we had a new president. WE had a new president.
The next morning, I called my grandma. I’m not one to talk to my family much, but I always kept in touch with my grandma. She always wanted to know how her Blimp was doing (That’s her embarrassing nickname for me. She gave it to me because my head was huge was a kid).
What was said during this conversation was one of the greatest talks I had in my life. She told me “We did it. I never thought I would see the day, but we did it.”Her voice began to crack. “I remember when they didn’t let us vote. But I voted yesterday. I voted for the first black president. I never thought I would see it. ”
My grandmother saw a lot in her lifetime. She was born in 1931. As she told me once, “They called it the Great Depression, we just called it Tuesday”. She lived through Jim Crow and segregation. She told me stories about cleaning a rich white man’s house and finding a Klansman hood. She remembers Selma. She remembers The Grandfather Clause and poll taxes. So for her to see so much change in her life, with little to none of it trending towards the positive, it put this whole experience for me into perspective.
This took me back to my teacher’s comment. Maybe she wasn’t saying that I can’t be president. Maybe she was saying, subconsciously perhaps, that there is no way in hell America will ever have a black president in my lifetime. Not after everything that’s happened not even 50 years ago.
This letter isn’t a big love fest, though. No, no, no. I’d be lying if I said there weren’t times when I was annoyed by President Obama’s decision making. Yes, I know he was dealt a terrible hand. He lifted us out of a financial crisis after the cast of The Big Short nearly sent us into The Great-er Depression. He saved the auto industry from collapse. But what annoyed me the most? He tried to be the great compromiser.He tried to hear both sides too often instead of rolling up his sleeves. Even if it was clear as day that the other side was wrong as hell. As I reflect on this now, these things made him a great leader. As Bill Withers said once during an interview, he’s “optimistically naive”[paraphrase]. Although Congress failed him at times, Democrats and Republicans alike, he never stopped believing things could get better. He expects the best from America because he believes in its core values. As a staunch believer in documents such as our Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, he indeed holds those truths to be self-evident: All men are equal to him. He believes no man is inherently bad and every man has a bit of good in him. While this was admirable, it was frustrating watching a senate use this to their advantage. I can’t even begin to imagine the burden this job carried. How hard it was to have your character attacked and your family disrespected. To not only have his fitness for the job questioned but his loyalty to his country. I’m sure there were times where he had to succumb to the pressure behind closed doors. Still, he just smiled and never complained.
I can’t gauge if his presidency was undoubtedly a success but I do know things got just a tad bit better. I saw a nation filled with hope. I saw what a progressive state looked like. I saw a generation of black people, young and old, taking pride in themselves. He aided with that pride. We got that pride from watching him lead our nation. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that black arts are booming now. Black issues in this nation aren’t in the mainstream by accident. Watching him gave millions pride and the courage to demand more. I’m glad I was able to see it. I was proud to see the positive influences set by him and his beautiful wife Michele.
Ultimately, that’s what it’s all about. Those positive influences. My time is done. Those aspirations of being president died a long time ago. My life is databases and spreadsheets now. I don’t know where life will lead me but the Oval Office likely isn’t one of those places. I do have new aspirations, though. I want to be a productive member of our democracy by performing my civic duties. I want to believe that if a black man born in Hawaii can one day become president, then there’s no mountain too tall to climb. But somewhere, there is a little black boy who has been inspired by this man has those same aspirations. He’s going to ask his teacher if he can be president one day.
Now, she has no choice but to respond, “Yes, you can.”