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Looking Back With Gratitude On Obama, And His Optimistic Vision Of America

Photo by Emmanuel Dunand AFP/Getty Images

Then-Senator Barack Obama speaks as rain falls during a rally at Widener University in Chester, Penn. in October 2008.

Photo by Meera Bowman Johnson

Mat Johnson is the author of the novels Loving Day and Pym. He teaches at the University of Houston's creative writing program.

Audio

My whole life, I've dreamed of having a home theater. But those are expensive, so instead I did it on the cheap. I got a projector off Craigslist, went to the hardware store and bought some wood to build a frame, then stretched a white canvas over it and stapled it tight.

I'm really proud of the final product — it's not perfect, but it's pretty good for an English teacher. Now my family and I all sit and watch it, this screen. Between movies, TV shows and games, we spent the whole winter break looking at my creation.

The funny thing is, we're not actually watching the screen itself. Instead, we're watching the images projected onto it. The things we see have nothing to do with its fabric; they're being cast there, from a gray box hidden on the back of the ceiling. When the lights go on, there's the screen again, just an empty, inert canvas.

I keep thinking of my projector and screen when I think of President Obama in the moment — both how he affected the way I look at the world, and how others projected their worldview onto him.

When I first noticed Obama on the stage of the 2004 DNC convention, I saw, with great pride, someone of my own tribe. He was black and mixed like me, but he was also a gifted orator with vision. I was proud that he was even there.

Those who see people like themselves in power all the time don't understand that feeling. They take it for granted. The rest of us don't: It's huge. Trust me.

When Obama ran for president and unexpectedly won the Iowa caucus, I was even prouder. But I also didn't think he could win the whole thing, because the America I saw, the one I grew up seeing, was far too racist to ever let that happen.

When Obama did win, my reaction went beyond pride. I was shook. Now I could see this other, more optimistic version of America. It was the one that Obama imagined, the one he projected for us all to see.

After his inauguration, my wife and I drove from Houston back to Philly, to see our family, traveling through the red clay of the deep South. Before the trip, I never knew how beautiful the South was, the way the sun shone down through the Spanish moss of those old trees. I'd been through the South before, but I'd never seen it without thinking about slavery and about the century of racial injustice that followed slavery.

While that history wasn't erased, my wife and I, both the descendants of slaves, were struck with a new, amazing feeling of belonging. With our three small kids in our air-conditioned mini-van, we passed through the very counties where our ancestors lived in bondage. Our wheels spun over the very soil our relatives were forced to toil. But now we, too, were Americans. We were Americans with full membership in a way that we never felt before.

It was the same nation it'd always been, but it was projected through Obama's eyes. I felt like I could see the beauty of America clearer.

I wanted to say that: That for me, Obama was the projector, that he projected a new, beautiful vision of America. Because for most of his presidency, I saw him being used by the majority of white America as the opposite. He was their screen, a canvas on which they cast their own tribal anxiety, their own subconscious racial baggage, until they couldn't see the real man even if they wanted to.

I'll say this for President Obama: We went into his administration talking about a "post-racial America." We went out of his administration talking about a "post-factual" America. Nothing says you've won the argument like your opponent claiming facts don't matter.

It's almost funny now, all the post-racial talk. When Obama was first elected, some white folks seemed to think it was proof that racism was over, that everyone could just shut up about it now. Others soon complained that Obama was making race relations worse, that his blackness made white America — a majority of whom didn't vote for him — mad as hell.

Some cast onto him the image of the "magic Negro savior," the one foretold in all those Morgan Freeman movies. Conservative media spent years projecting onto him their fear of the radical black man out for vengeance, a modern day Nat Turner. Obama was going to rob them of their civil liberties, take away their guns, even institute Sharia law.

So much was projected onto President Obama — God, devil and everything in between. How the world saw him didn't tell you much about him, but it told you a lot about who was doing the projecting.

I didn't always agree with Obama when he was president. Not domestically, not internationally. But I always respected — and will always respect — that man. And I will be extremely thankful for what he stood for, for what he meant to my family and for the America that he allowed all of us to see.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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