Nov. 4, 2008 was the first Election Day where I was fully aware of the political landscape and the gravity of selecting a new leader to guide our country.
That was the day that America picked President Barack Obama to be our 44th president. It was the day that America decided that an African American president could lead us through some not so great times in the country. We were on the precipice of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, wars were still raging on in the Middle East and its carnage was at the top of every nightly newscast.
But tonight was different. Tonight the image of President-elect Obama, his wife Michelle and their two young daughters color-coordinated in their red and black outfits were at the top of every news station. They walked out on that stage in Grant Park – 11 miles away from where I sat at home – to a crying crowd.
He had done it. Him, with a name like “Barack Hussein Obama” had won over the hearts of the country to become the first African American president. It was forty years after the Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated for trying to achieve racial equality. Forty-three years since a bullet took Malcolm X as well. Two generations since Reagonomics had decimated whole black communities. About 15 years since the “three strikes” policy worked to do the same. And just a few years past the time that I realized that I was an African American teenager about to navigate the fabric of our country’s racial tapestry.
As CNN repeated the results of the election confirming that yes our country really had elected this tall, lanky black man with the funny name who lived in the city I was from, I laid belly down watching the TV in awe. I remember wanting to feel some time of emotion – anything. At 14 I was old enough to know how pivotal this moment. Yet I lacked the experience to bottle up all of those feelings of racial strides to emote them.
So I looked over to my mom who sat on the red futon just a few feet from me. And I saw her cry. Tears streaming down her face and crying. Because she didn’t have the words but she had the experience. And my dad? Well he was at work monitoring the trains, making sure everything was orderly as the biggest story in the country – no, world – unfolded on his watch. I remember him calling us briefly, emotionally expressing the joy that he felt that hi guy had won.
See, our family has framed photographs of President Obama hanging up in our house. When I was 11-years-old and First Lady Obama was just a U.S. senator’s wife I met her in the hair salon where she and my mom were getting their hair pressed. We had copies of Ebony and Jet with them on the cover sitting on our coffee table. And at 14-years-old I was just old enough to realize that it wasn’t everyday that history unfolded in your city.
I worked hard to bottle up the memories. I wanted to remember how I felt, so that if one day my children would ask me what it was like to feel history write itself, I would be able to tell them with complete certainty.
I looked over to my mom. She was still crying and I remember asking her what she was thinking about. She told me “who.”
“I’m thinking about my father and your Poppy who was able to cast his ballot for the first black president,” my mom responded.
Her father had passed away when she was 11-years-old. My grandfather Poppy was experiencing earlier signs of Alzheimer’s. It would be the last election he would vote in.
She was thinking of all those who were here, like us, to witness this. I though about all those relatives, now up above, who must be looking down in awe at our new First Family as well.
I want to be able to tell my children that Chicago was the center of the world that night. That the Nov. 4, 2008 was years ago, but when I compare it to any other election I lived through it will always be the most vivid.
I’m thinking a lot about that day eight years ago on the eve of another historic election between Secretary Hillary Clinton and Mr. Donald Trump. I’m 22-years-old now. I’m old enough to cast my own ballot and cry my own tears thinking about all of the moments that got us to this one.
But I’ll still have the giddiness of a 14-year-old laying on the floor watching the world shift in front of her. I’m convinced that without that spirit of wonder, democracy just doesn’t feel the same.