Morning phone calls have long been my enemy, but I was more understanding on Nov. 5, 2008. Hours before, Barack Obama became the first black man elected President of the United States—plus, it was my mother calling. Skipping the standard pleasantries, she contextualized the moment: "You can be the president one day."
Parents typically reserve that type of positive reinforcement for small children, not recent college graduates with zero interest in politics. But I understood the deeper meaning behind her words. A black man with his feet propped up on the Oval Office’s desk echoed and enforced what my parents had always taught me: There were no ceilings for me. Race wasn’t an impediment to my success.
No president could yield a complete overhaul of race relations in America, but Obama has had an undeniable impact on black youth. A black president was a pipe dream to one generation; for another, he’s been the staple.
Born into Reaganomics, the American history I learned was a revolving door of white, male commanders-in-chief. I spent the bulk of high school salty about the 2000 presidential election’s calamitous outcome and my collegiate experience followed suit, aligning with George W. Bush’s second term in office. This means the “best years” of my life were punctuated by the sweeping optimism of 2004’s "Vote or Die!" campaign, the subsequent letdown of W.’s re-election, and its disastrous aftermath. But the last two elections have produced an entirely different and formative experience for black teenagers.
In February, The Denver Post spoke to black youth in Colorado who saw positives on the horizon, thanks to Obama. Jamar Holmes, 15, admitted that after the 2008 election, he was uncertain about Obama’s impact on his future. Now, he values the president as a priceless source of encouragement.
"It gave me more of a sense of hope and self-confidence," he said. "People forget how even small ripples can change how a wave can move."
Speeches have been Obama’s forte, and now that his presidency is winding down, he’s tapping into his inner-graduating senior to continue inspiring youth. After two terms, he’s more candid and his insight is sharper. Obama was scheduled to speak at three graduation ceremonies this year, and his first and most pivotal appearance was at an historically black university (HBCU).
On May 7, Obama was the keynote speaker at Howard University’s commencement. He’s spoken at HBCU graduations in the past, but this particular speech was urgent and crucially timed. Howard (disclosure: I’m an alumnus) is not only one of the most important universities in the nation, it’s also the most discussed HBCU (usually for the good, but lately, the not-so-good). His appearance showed that, despite Howard’s recent challenges, an institution lauded for shaping black minds is still worth the president’s time. Above all, Obama lent assurance to a sea of black grads preparing to face a world he helped shape. With roughly 25,000 people clinging to his every word, Obama told Howard’s class of 2016 to be proud of their heritage.
"Be confident in your blackness," he urged. "One of the great changes that’s occurred in our country since I was your age is the realization there's no one way to be black."
Former president Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1965 Howard commencement speech is historic because it’s regarded as the blueprint for affirmative action, but Obama’s address was momentous in its own right. No other president has had the capacity to authentically encourage black students to own their blackness. Obama’s words have a unique gravitas because he was once in the same position as these college grads, without the unprecedented boost of a black president.
"It takes a village to raise a child," is a well-known African proverb about community effort. Obama's words at Howard had the clear intention of using the wisdom he's gained over two terms to enrich a generation. They went beyond the playful rapport of graduating seniors, as he opened up about his own experience and acknowledged that the opportunities he had aren't readily available to everyone.
Indeed, Obama’s made a concerted effort to address this disparity in the past: He launched My Brother’s Keeper in 2014, an initiative to confront "persistent opportunity gaps" that beset boys and young men of color. And as Sasha and Malia’s parents, he and First Lady Michelle Obama recognize the necessity of uplifting black girls, as well.
Although the first lady’s Let Girls Learn initiative was conceived to ensure equal education for all girls worldwide, her remarks at BET’s Black Girls Rock! event made it clear that she understands the problem disproportionately affects girls who look like her. Barack and Michelle go beyond the obligatory (and mostly gestural) acknowledgment of young black men and women. They advocate for the undervalued the way only those who’ve lived the experience could, and Obama’s legacy is best gauged by his influence on black youth and exceptional impact on black identity and pride.
Presidents are emblematic of the majority, but the black community has enshrined Obama as "our president" because his blackness can't be muted. No president has taken the deaths of young black men and women at the hands of law enforcement so personally. No president could’ve pulled off jokingly giving the NBA’s most prolific shooter technical advice. No president would invite Kendrick Lamar, braids and all, to the White House to discuss mentoring, or Nicki Minaj, J. Cole, Rick Ross, Pusha T, DJ Khaled, Ludacris, and others to discuss criminal justice reform. No president would fully grasp the power of their voices in relation to his vision of America. For this reason, we see ourselves in Obama.
POTUS was never in the cards for me, but it can be for another black kid with that dream. That’s what my mother meant that November morning, eight years ago.