The earliest memories of former President Barack Obama are a little hazy for the high school juniors and seniors who revere the nation’s first black president and look to spend their lives honoring his legacy.
They remember their parents talking about him — “Oh, we have a black president.” They remember the tears of grandmas who thought they would never see the day. They remember the connection they felt when they saw a black man taking the oath of office on the Capitol Steps.
“I don’t see myself in anyone else who has the run the country,” said Schenectady High School senior Mikayla Foster, whose father, like Obama’s, is Kenyan and whose mother is Native American. “I don’t see part of my heritage or my family in someone else. To see someone like my dad (as president), I didn’t really understand what it meant, until I saw him being sworn in.”
Foster — who isn’t afraid to bluntly state her own political ambitions: “I will be president” — said the day Obama was first inaugurated was the day she felt anything was possible.
That day in 2009 also carried more ominous overtones for the president’s young supporters who, even in their youth, understood at least partially the backlash that was to follow Obama’s swearing in.
“I also felt anxiety because this was a really big first step and there was a lot more to come,” Foster said last week as she reflected on Obama’s legacy with fellow classmates.
The students, largely young black women, pointed to Obama’s policy legacy of the health care expansion and the expansion of gay rights. But they also emphasized, and held to, the more subtle, and perhaps consequential, legacy that can’t be rolled back by a Republican Congress and President Donald Trump.
The part of Obama’s legacy that might be the most enduring after all, they said, is them.
“There are so many steps to be taken, we all need to take part in that,” Foster said. “He knows it’s not on his shoulders anymore, so it’s up to us to take next steps.”
For many young Americans of color, still in the teens, the ascension of Trump represents a stark reminder that progress — even if it ultimately “bends toward justice,” as Obama likes to remind his followers — doesn’t always move in the direction they think it should.
“A lot of else felt kind of broken after the election,” Schenectady High School junior Dominique Dunlap said. “Don’t break down and be depressed about it — move forward.”
The Obama presidency was far from perfect, they acknowledged, citing deluge of tragic police killings of black men and Obama’s resistance to focus explicitly on rhetoric and policies aimed at addressing the challenges that many black communities face.
But Obama and his family carried themselves with dignity, setting a strong example as a role model to young blacks and all Americans, the students said.
“Wait, can we talk about Michelle for a second,” Foster said as she cut into a conversation about the other Obama. “She is definitely someone I feel holds so much poise and self-confidence ... It shows you don’t have to be what the societal norm has become of black people, what media portrays as the societal norm of black people.”
Obama’s message has long been less about his ability to make change in the world and more about the ability of individuals and groups to make change by engaging in politics, service and activism.
“I’m asking you to believe. Not in my ability to create change — but in yours,” Obama has said.
But the budding activists hope that Obama will join the fight with them, continuing to focus on progressive issues and engaging and inspiring the young people who have long seen themselves in Obama and what he represents.
“He holds so much weight in what I’m supposed to do, on what I am going to do,” Foster said. “There are so many self-revelations that he taught me that I can’t replace.”
But as Obama prepared to step down as president last week, the students recognized that it was up to them and others who shared their vision of the country to demand and create they change they want to see in the world.
“There’s the potential for a true movement,” student Shayla Kerr said. “It will be truly up to us to decide if we will carry on his legacy — his policies are already going away. It’s truly up to us to see where we go with this; we do have power as people.”