When it comes to epochal events, whether it’s the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. or the destruction of the Twin Towers, the go-to question to ask is always “Where were you?” But in a lot of ways, that’s pretty weak. The harder, more enlightening ask is “How did it feel?” That’s what I’m trying to put my finger on today as we all revel in the tenth anniversary of the election of the United States’ first black president, Barack Obama.
Like a lot of millenials, I was in a college bar when I found out he won. The news was broadcast on flatscreen TVs hovering above bottles of booze. As soon as it was a for sure thing, there were celebratory shots and shouts, and then we took to the streets to strut and sing. I called my mom and dad, a middle-aged black couple who never believed this country would ever elect someone who looked like them to lead the nation, and rejoiced with them over the phone as the rapturous sounds of my friends roared in the background.
But as ecstatic as I was, I can’t say that I felt surprised. Having been the rare black person in predominantly white spaces my entire life, the prospect of a black man in the White House never seemed impossible to me. The world I was born and raised in probably made it inevitable that I would take his election for granted.
But as sure as I was that he’d win, I wasn’t so sure he’d survive. Even on that jubilant election night, drunk on all the “hope-y, change-y stuff,” I understood enough about America to be fearful of what would follow. This country has a tradition of domestic political violence that extends from the rogue assassination of Abraham Lincoln to the state-sanctioned slaying of Fred Hampton. I wondered, if only briefly, how would those who were so invested in never seeing a black man be anything or have any power, let alone the presidency, react to Obama’s ascendance?
While Obama made it in and out of the White House intact, what celebratory naïveté I had has passed. From Charleston to Charlottesville, it’s clear the pendulum has swung back, cutting the nation and shedding American blood. Eight years after Obama’s historic election, Donald Trump seemed to me to have the same strange air of inevitability as his predecessor, riding on a wave of hate that felt just as propulsive as the hope Obama inspired. In both elections, I saw everything I’d come to understand about America. Obama signified how far we’d come. And Trump epitomized how far we need to go.
As we approach another precipice with these November 6 midterm elections, it’s anyone’s guess how the country will vote. But I still think that, despite the harsh realities we’ve faced in the wake of Obama’s election, the feelings we felt on that triumphant night can be instructive. They can tell us what to strive for and also what to be weary of going forward.
In honor of the tenth anniversary of Obama's historic election, VICE has asked a number of notable black writers what they were feeling the night everything seemed to change, when a man who bled the same African blood as those who slaved to build the White House came to claim 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as his home.
The days leading up to the presidential election in 2008 were tense. Well, at least they felt that way to me. I remember having an awkward conversation the week before with one of my best friends' moms about the election. She had told me that she wanted to vote for Barack Obama but she was afraid that he'd get assassinated. She vented to me about how she felt this country needed a change but she wasn't sure if people were ready for it. I didn't know what to say. I was 13. I remember the Monday before election day, my school set up mock election voting booths. As my homeroom class headed to the assigned voting room, some of my classmates and I chatted about who we'd vote for. I proudly proclaimed that I'd vote for Barack Obama and that I wished I was old enough to vote. One of the kids in my class replied by saying, "You're only voting for him because he's black." I retorted with a forceful "No I'm not," and tried to avoid that kid for the rest of the day. The truth is, at the time, I really didn't have much other reason for wanting for vote for him other than that. On election night, my parents let me stay up late to watch the results roll in. They invited my grandmother over and we huddled around the TV for the rest of the night. I fell asleep for a good chunk of the coverage, but my mother's screaming woke me up hours later. "He won! My president is black!" she screamed. My grandmother cried. All of the tense feelings I had been harboring dissipated and it almost felt as if the room was alight with a hazy, hopeful glow. Or maybe that was just my half-asleep brain. It's only now that I remember the story of how my grandmother and grandfather almost got lynched on their way to a Martin Luther King Jr. rally in Mississippi that I understand the weight of her tears that day. Barack Obama's election and presidency gave a sense of hope to the black community, and if I could go back in time to that eighth grade boy who said I was only voting for Barack because he was black, I would have looked him dead in the eye and said: "You're damn straight." - Janae Price
Chicago always buzzes with productive energy and election night 2008 was no different: I hit a party at the Hilton Chicago, a who’s who affair. I peered out a window overlooking throngs gathered at Grant Park, where the Obama family would later take the stage in victory and the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. would be photographed in the crowd shedding a tear. Some would say those were crocodile tears, but wiser folks know a dude named Jesse coming from slave stock Down South should’ve been first. People who do their homework would know how Jackson changed the game and the rules to make it possible for Obama to run — and win. Settling in at a River North restaurant with a small group of mostly black professionals, I hunched over my laptop clacking out a story on deadline as CNN announced Obama’s historic win, his countenance glowing from the oversized TV screen. Sam Cooke’s soaring anthem “Change Is Gonna Come,” filled the space. A brief heaviness descended on the room as epic memories rushed through our collective psyche. With Great Migration backgrounds, America's history of racial terror was the reason many of us came to be in that city in that room. Holding their breaths in disbelief, folks finally let go and cried — together. They, we, me were happy for what Obama represented even if we would have to both check him and protect him. But we were also happy for us. If America saw him, maybe they could see us, too, if they really tried. I never fell for the myth Obama’s election would solve the problem with America, built-in structural inequity powered by racism. His ascendancy was an optical start. Besides, when would the country get another chance to choose someone with his intellect, even temper and good sense to marry a brilliant black woman like Michelle? With a white mother, he didn’t carry the baggage of enslavement that discomfits those white Americans looking for an easy way out of the race conversation. Here was a blue moon moment where a negro-they-know got past the gauntlet, while the housing crisis and double-digit joblessness succeeded in invisibilizing many African-Americans with similar backstories as the Obamas. As a nation, we had some wins, like healthcare (for now). But there’s a sense Obama could have pushed harder, been bolder. He insisted on being nice when being kind was enough. Nice is to be earned as we would soon learn. Living in a black body, one thing I know for sure is Obama’s presence amplified what we thought we knew and what we definitely know through lived experience and rigorous inquiry into America’s racist underpinnings, embedded in every contemporary institution and practice. Now, here we are, and to paraphrase comedian Tiffany Haddish, we ain’t ready. - Deborah Douglas
I was in my senior year at Howard University during the night of Barack Obama’s win. Totally enveloped in my campus newspaper, The Hilltop, I spent election night in the newsroom nervously watching CNN and talking to reporters we stationed throughout D.C. Anticipation was considerably high and everyone remained positive—shook by the monumental prospect of having the first Black president—but we remained realistic in the probability of a John McCain presidency. When the official count came in, the office of a half dozen reporters and editors producing election stories was ecstatic —I’ve never experienced that type of joy rooted in inter-generational hope. We got the stories to the printer, painstakingly decided on a front page image, and immediately ran to Pennsylvania Avenue to celebrate in front of the White House. - Danielle Kwateng-Clark
I'm a reporter based in Chicago so this was a very local story for us too. That night I was out in the neighborhoods in Bronzeville, a historic area of Chicago that used to be known as the "Black Belt." I went to a couple election parties. The one thing I remember was that it was unusually warm for a November that night. It was about 70 degrees, and it was a very early night. The election did not drag on. We knew much earlier than we anticipated that Barack Obama would be president. People were jubilant. What I remember at the time was a lot of excitement in Chicago. I don't mean just the election season. You could just feel something in the air. It felt like something was afoot. I don't think it's because anyone thought racism was going to end, nonetheless there was something special in the air and symbolism is important. Most people didn't think they'd see this in their lifetime—a black president. I think some people are dumbfounded in this country that we could go from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. That does not surprise me at all. Misogyny, white supremacy, institutionalized racism did not go away. We've seen the white racial anxiety that's in this country. There was talk that this would be a transformative moment where people would identify themselves as an "Obama Democrat," the way people describe themselves as "Reagan Republicans," and Republicans would be marginalized and concentrated in the southern US since that's where the red states were. That's not what we've seen. I don't know what I thought would change. I know he was giving people a lot of hope and inspiration. As a journalist, frankly I'm cynical. It's not that I didn't think he could make any change, and we saw that when he delved into the Affordable Care Act. But I didn't see him in this messiah way. I did a story on all the t-shirts putting him with Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, and Nelson Mandela, and certainly he inherited something from them by the fact that he was able to run. But he's an elected official, not a civil rights leader, not a freedom fighter. It was a historic moment. I don't think there was any other place to be other than in Chicago. I'm not taking away that symbolism. It's important to people. I won't take that away. - Natalie Moore
I was born in America to Ethiopian immigrant parents and, after undergrad in Charlottesville, I came up to New York for law school. A decade ago, my boy Isaac was born at home in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn, and when he was one week old, his mom carried him to the polls to vote Sen. BHO for president. Throughout his early childhood, my interracial son looked up to a president like him. Isaac just turned 10 and nowadays he knows that Obama is more often called black than mixed and that sometimes humans hate each other because of skin color. Every now and then he asks, “but, why?” - Amdie Mengistu
I was 13 years old pacing the living room of my New York apartment with my mom as the votes came in. We were both giddy and she kept making calls to friends and other family members as the night unfolded. It was almost humorous watching her at a new level of excitement, energy brimming over into spontaneous, silly dance moves and sporadic kickboxing imitations when a blue state landed a punch. But once the anchors finally said, “Barack Obama will be the 44th president of the United States,” I was suddenly the one on my knees crying when she looked back from her victory lap around the room. For being so young and new to understanding the depths of America’s wickedness, the weight of the moment wasn’t lost on me. I remember seeing Jesse Jackson crying when the Obamas came out on stage, beautiful as ever, and thinking about the people he could be wishing were there with him. I remember feeling happy for my mother thinking of the untold stories she may have of her blackness or single-motherhood holding her back from a dream. The moment felt untouchable, even if Obama decided not to go off on what the night meant for black people. It was all in the air. That night I got a glimpse of what it feels like to tap into a profound emotional connection to people you’ve never met and unnamed people who’ve built toward a moment together over centuries. It was a reminder that as much as I liked to clown around and run amok with my friends growing up, that there was another more serious side to me I could tap into when I was ready. That sense of deep investment in the stories that inform a moment, even if they’re not my stories, is largely what catapulted my interest in traveling to less developed countries and later in pursuing journalism in general. Once I started feeding my curiosity it was hard to ignore the pull toward unspoken history.
- Taylor Hosking
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Wilbert on Twitter.