When I was twelve years old, I was taken out of class on January 20th to go to my middle school’s auditorium and watch Barack Obama take the oath of office. In 2009, barely more than 40 years since the greatest civil rights leader this country has ever known was gunned down on a hotel balcony, Obama became the first black person to swear to uphold the Constitution as the country’s leader.
By Sebastian Torero
I doubt I understood just how momentous that occasion was when I was twelve and I likely will never understand just what it meant to so many Americans, to our history. There is so much suffering in our past that I will only ever know from books or from hearing the words of others, never through my own experience. And for those who suffered a long history of segregation, of hatred and prejudice, and continue to face its ongoing legacy, hopefully the past eight years have brought some catharsis. I have to tell that to myself on a day like today. I have to remind myself, as now former President Obama and Dr. King said, that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. It may zig zag along the way. But it gets there, eventually.
I have spent a lot of time the last few days thinking about what having Barack Obama as president meant. There will be countless books written on the subject, innumerable articles and op-eds, a stream of movies, TV shows, special reports, YouTube videos, on and on and on, a plethora of substance to reflect on one of the most important presidencies in American history. I would be remiss to pretend to be any sort of political expert, or any kind of soothsayer with the ability to see just how, and how much, the past eight years will affect the future. I can only truly speak from the heart, and say what having Barack Hussein Obama as the leader of my country meant to me.
Barack Obama expressed the epitome of what I believe America to be, in his character, in his actions, in his history, in his optimism, and also in his failures.
The dignity and poise with which Obama exercised his duty as President stands as a testament to his character and to his role as our country’s first black President. Every move of Barack Obama’s presidency was monitored and scrutinized, and he had to execute the office not only with the responsibility of leadership on his shoulders but also that of over 400 years of systematic oppression, a legacy of racism that made it a historic occasion for a person with brown skin to be elected President. President Obama proved to be a man of character when many politicians seem to struggle with basic concepts of human decency. Whatever there is to be said about his decisions as president, whether I agreed with them or not, I will always know my president was a good man at heart.
My father is an immigrant from Peru; my mother is an American Jew. I grew up eating matzah ball soup and ceviche, watching Seinfeld and reading Mario Vargas Llosa. I, like one half of my family, pray with a siddur while the other half prays with a rosary. There’s nothing simple about the identity I was given, but I’ve never felt like there was anything wrong with the complex web my family tree made. That was because I knew America to be welcoming to everyone from all walks of life. Simplicity was never a foundation of this country. For me, it was always a place of open arms, a place that embraced the complicated nature of humanity. Barack Obama is the son of a Muslim black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. He grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia, studied in California and New York and Massachusetts, worked in Chicago and Washington, and became a president who reflected our complex national identity more than any other in history. Barack Obama’s identity rejects any simple categorization. To some, that was frightening. To me, it was American.
It’s no big reveal to say the author of books entitled “The Audacity of Hope” and “Dreams of My Father,” who first ran for president on the sentence “Yes we can” is a person whose worldview is rooted in optimism and faith in his fellow human beings. But it is important to mention. There are many other writings about President Obama’s optimism that are far better than I could ever conceive of creating at this point in my life. But Barack Obama’s optimism was a striking feature of his presidency, a striking feature of American identity. An optimism that believes we are not defined by our transgressions or our evils but our ability to make up for them, to amend our behavior, to repent for our sins through good deeds. Obama was a man of faith in many ways, one being his faith in the American people to create a fairer, more just society.
When I was twelve, I was in math class when Barack Obama stepped out of his limo to wave to the crowds lining the streets of Washington D.C., people there to watch a man that was in so many ways so many of us become president. He waved and he smiled and my math teacher Mr. Rogers held his breath. He was older, he understood the hate that was out there far better than us. And now many of the twelve year olds in that room have become 20-year old cynics, frustrated with politics and angry at a world that resists progress. We see that Guantanamo is still open, that young black men are still killed by police, that the War on Terror continues unabated. Hope and change feel like empty slogans rather than rallying cries at points. And of course there are times when I feel that cynicism too, when I see nothing but corruption and disenchantment in our leadership, when it seems like all it takes to cloud out common sense is a big ego or a deep pocket. But Barack Obama, a man who dealt with the worst of politics, a man who battled inherent prejudice and ideological grandstanding, always remained an optimist. Always fired up, ready to go. Because he knew change was possible. He believed that if something was not working, it could be fixed, that problems could be solved, that progress could be made. It’s a bit heartbreaking to talk of progress and change today. A day when protests are rattling the capital, when windows are being smashed and tear gas is being fired and our country seems to be tearing itself asunder rather than seeking common ground. This is the way in which the failure of Obama represents America. This country is built on wonderful values of freedom and equality and the power of the individual to achieve what they desire if they work hard to do so. But it has rarely, if ever, truly lived up to those values. It has come close, extremely close inspiringly close. But time and time again it has missed the mark and fallen short. Today, our idealism and those values stand out not as the bedrock of the nation but a glaring reminder of the failures woven into our history. Barack Obama’s legacy will be remembered not only for what happened during his presidency, but what came immediately after.
But this is not a day completely for sadness, but for action. Because democracy is never limited to one day, it is an ongoing process. Nobody expresses this sentiment better than the former President. So thank you for all you’ve done, Mr. Obama. Thank you for your service to our country. Thank you for embodying and affirming the optimism, the dignity, the diversity, and the goodwill that are the qualities I love most about my country. And thank you for reminding me we still have so far to go if we are to truly be the nation we set out to be centuries ago, where all people are granted the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That constant engagement is the duty and privilege of the citizens of a democracy. Thank you for these lessons. Now, get some rest. You’ll probably need it, it might be a long four years.