It's hard to know where to start.
Do I start with the first time I ever heard you speak? It was 2004 and I was sitting on the hardwood floor of my parents' house in Decatur, Alabama as we watched the Democratic National Convention for then-nominee John Kerry. You came on the screen and suddenly, what had been a relatively dull and boring convention (at least to 15-year-old-me) lit up like a firecracker. Out of nowhere, there was someone on television talking to me. To me.
"There is not a liberal America and a conservative America -- there is the United States of America."
My mother said, "Yes," out loud. I looked back and she was crying. So was I. It felt like I'd been alone at a party for hours and a dear friend suddenly touched me on the shoulder. It felt like someone had said my name. This was the America that I always thought was underneath all the rhetoric, all the jaded sideways glances. Here it was.
Do I start with the day you declared your candidacy for President? It was 2007, and I was in another sitting room in Decatur, Alabama - only this time, it was my high school sweetheart's parents' house. The room was filled with students home from college for the weekend - principled, Southern young people, most of whom were wrestling with where they fell on the political spectrum. Not me. My "A Blue Dot In A Very Red State" bumper sticker had already been fixed (by me) and torn (by someone else) from my bumper by the time you stepped up to that podium in Chicago. But every one of us, no matter our political leanings at the time, were riveted to the screen. Just like before, your energy soared through the airwaves from states away and landed squarely between my eyes. I wept:
"...we landed a man on the moon. We heard a King's call to let justice run down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. We've done this before. Every time a new generation has risen up and done what's needed to be done. Today, we are called once more. And it is time for our generation to answer that call."
I looked around the room and thought, "He's talking to us." It felt, again, like I had been plucked out of obscurity; like my idealistic and naive beliefs about the goodness in the world were being sung out from a rooftop.
Do I start with the day I voted for you? When my mother and I went to the fire station in an almost all-White, upper-class neighborhood in Birmingham, where we then lived, and cast our votes for the first African American President of the United States? I was 19. It was the first election I voted in. I still have the t-shirt I wore to the polls - your now famous campaign logo with the word "Change" written across the bottom. I remember curling my hair with extra care that day to go and vote for My President. I touched the ballot after I made my selections, and tears sprang forth in my eyes. "Please," I thought. This would not be the only time I prayed over a ballot, and not the only time I have cast a historic vote -- 2016 gave me both those opportunities again -- but it was the first time. It was because you called on me in 2004 to start paying attention, to keep my ears pricked up for signs of life, to never forsake my part in America's story.
Or should we begin with later that same day when the votes were tallied and you were elected? I was seated in a small on-campus college apartment, surrounded by the College Democrats at the Birmingham-Southern College. I remember the moment that you walked out onto that stage so well I could almost sketch it from memory: Michelle's black and red dress, the little girls, your powerful words ringing over thousands of people who'd gathered, the way you spoke about your grandmother who'd passed away only two days before.
"This is moment. This is our time...to reclaim the American dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth: that out of many, we are one. That while we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism and doubt and those that tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up a spirit of a people: 'Yes, we can.'"
Our eyes red from crying, we held each other and beamed. This had actually happened. It felt dream-like and impossible, but it wasn't. It was real.
I could talk about how, when I served as a corps member with Teach For America in rural Alabama, my students, all African American, weren't ever unclear about the possibility that someone who looks like them could sit in the White House and command a nation. It was a foregone conclusion that they could become President one day -- so obvious that declaring it aloud was met with that special exasperation only teenagers can master. "Of course we can," they'd say, and then go back to their work. And in that youthful, dismissive certainty, that the world changed
I could talk about the many times you've handled sticky situations with grace, candor, and tact. I could talk about your great good humor, your sly smile, your penchant for breaking into song -- be it Al Green or Amazing Grace. I could talk about your kindness, the prisoners you've freed, the soldiers you've brought home, the solace you've provided for families whose loved ones were victims of senseless gun violence. Or your incredible mind. Or your prowess as a leader. Or your steadiness under pressure. Or your ability to bring the voices and the issues of people of color to the forefront. Or any of the hundreds of adjectives that jump to mind when I consider the eight years you've given us.
What I really want to say is that I didn't truly grasp that you weren't going to be President anymore until I realized who was going to be President instead. The grief that overwhelmed me in that moment had nothing to do with an impending Republican White House (because what are we if not a nation built upon the great minds of both political parties?), but instead sprang from a familiar ache in my deep in my gut. It's the same ache that tightens my throat when I consider that one day, my parents will die. It is the tight-chestedness that grips me in moments when my life is teetering on the edge of a permanent change, never to be the same again. And it's not because I'm nostalgic, though I am.
It's because every moment that you've been My President, I have been certain that everything would always work out. I felt safe, taken care of. Suddenly, I wasn't sure anymore. And it broke my heart.
But the magic of this particular grief is that, turned at a different angle, it became unity. When I wiped away my own tears, I was startled and heartened to find that there were so many others standing right in front of me, feeling the same way. As you've said since that November day in 2016, we can't lose hope. And so I won't.
I am not hopeful because I am naive, or because I'm ignorant to the fact that minorities, women of color, and people in socio-economic spaces all across the spectrum have different and often far more challenging plights than my own. I understand that many people, lots of whom helped elect our incoming President, have felt overlooked and marginalized.
I feel this way - this audacious hopefulness that you have taught us to curate - because you have inspired me to trust, despite all of the world's evils, that the good will always win out. To have learned from you for eight years and to come away cynical is to miss the beauty of what your legacy is; to stand for too long with stars in our eyes as we ask ourselves, "Wasn't it great back then?" is to miss the people ahead on the road with whom you've called us to join hands.
Honoring your legacy means living into the very real pain, fear, and anger that simmer just below the surface; to brave them in the name of changing them. To learn from each other. To love each other.
"Thank you," just doesn't seem like enough. I hope to make you proud of us in the way we practice what we've learned from the greatest leader of our lifetimes. I will not harden my heart or declare that I won't associate with people with whom I don't agree, however tempting it may be at times, because you've asked us not to do that. Even in your final words to us, you asked us to keep working together:
"My fellow Americans. It has been the honor of my life to serve you. I won't stop. In fact, I will be right there with you as a citizen for all my remaining days. But for now, whether you are young, or whether you're young at heart, I do have one final ask of you as your president. The same thing I asked when you took a chance on me eight years ago. I'm asking you to believe, not in my ability to bring about change, but in yours. I'm asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whisper by slaves and abolitionists, that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteader and those who march for justice. That creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon.
A creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written: Yes we can. Yes we did. Yes we can."
With pleasure, Mr. President. I believe. Yes we can.