Does hope matter?
In the minutes before President Barack Obama’s farewell speech on Tuesday night in Chicago, a group of four young women, black and brown, near the metal barricades that divided the public ticket holders from the press screamed in joy and stretched out their hands, as if in a post-game euphoric high. When I walked by, they asked for high fives.
“Aren’t you pumped?” one asked me.
Their smiles were long and pure. I returned the gestures. A symbol of sportsmanship and understanding, their procession felt like a reminder: we have made it through the last eight years, even when it seemed impossible.
There is hope. But in the back of my mind, I thought, maybe hope is no longer enough. Maybe our hope in the world, in our leaders and in each other can no longer be relied upon to save this country.
In the car ride over to Chicago’s McCormick Place, I was struck by how absurd the country had become in the last few months. It was not just the election or even the throngs of followers that voted a reality television star and failed businessman into office. No, it was the culmination of all of those things and all at once. And the realization that as one person, I cannot stop it from unfolding in front of my eyes.
Twitter has become something of a microcosm of this new normal, with voices shouting at each other with fury, fire and ignorance. To spend too much time on the platform is to be swallowed whole by the sadness of surreality.
But for a brief moment last night, I was reminded of the possibility of coming together, of the strength of humanity as a whole and the strength we find in each other. Existing, working and thriving online means sometimes we forget what it is like to interact with people outside of our own worlds. And yet, attending President Obama's farewell speech emphasized what we know deep down but maybe are too afraid to wrestle with in real life: that people are capable if we give them the chance to live within the best of their humanity.
That was the thing that surprised me the most last night. Hope still exists in many.
The crowd was one of the most diverse I’ve seen in Chicago, ever. In the lobby outside of the hall where the president’s speech took place, I was surrounded by every shape and size and color and background imaginable. I saw celebrities (Chris Tucker, Jussie Smollett). I saw coworkers and old classmates and friends. Mostly, I saw strangers, happy ones. In essence, it felt similar to the post-election joy that ran through the city in the hours (down in Grant Park) and days after President Obama’s historic win in 2008.
There was an ease and warmth to the room and the crowd. People were excited and joyful, if not a little naive. I expected mourning, but instead I found people resilient in their optimism. I began to feel the same, for the first time in months. Nothing can match the exhilaration of 2008, but I felt a small piece of that energy, simply by observing the faces around me. Bearing witness to the humanity of your fellow man makes the next day seem possible.
President Obama is a symbolic figure, not a perfect or fully realized one. He represents hope, that intangible idea he first campaigned on, that thing that many rely on when it seems everything–the government, educational and social systems, next door neighbors–is working against them. “Regardless of the station we occupy; we have to try harder,” President Obama said. “To start with the premise that each of our fellow citizens loves this country just as much as we do; that they value hard work and family like we do; that their children are just as curious and hopeful and worthy of love as our own.”
Despite the changing political tide, the people here still navigate with hope, believing something–anything–can change.
What is the cultural bubble then?
Here, in this big city, I see young and old, rich and poor, black and white co-existing, trusting, and believing in a united country. Families of all varieties flowed in abundance throughout the crowd, especially mothers of all ages and their daughters. A young Muslim family sported custom yellow t-shirts in praise of the president’s legacy. Middle-aged black women peppered the crowd sporting quirky Obama designs like screen-printed t-shirts or black and white skull caps. Two Latino reporters spoke in Spanish behind me as I wrote notes during the president’s speech. A white breastfeeding mother walked calmly through the press area with her young child in both arms and her camera strapped across her shoulder.
A wheelchair-bound, elderly black woman was a crowd favorite, with many, even at the end of the night, asking for a photo with her. In her lap was a framed photo of the president. She cradled it in her hands like a proud mother basking in the glow and accomplishments of her child. That feeling rang true for some throughout the night. For despite his faults, in the end, President Obama has meant something to many.
These are likely people from my city, Chicago, a place that perhaps thrives only by hiding the nastiest, ugliest parts of itself. Here, they were united under the tutelage of one man and one legacy.
But outside these doors, I wondered if that same camaraderie could carry. Only the president can bring together such disparate sides of the city and discuss topics that feel even more pertinent and dire here: the ramifications of economic inequality, an acceptance of cultural and racial diversity, the protection of democracy and our most human of rights.
Could we unite from neighborhood to neighborhood or from block to block? The hope permeating McCormick Place was not false, not wrong, for hope keeps us alive. But can we take that hope and make it a tangible thing measured by actual progress and physical change? Can we build even greater reserves of that hope, share it with the faces we only see in passing on the train, and come together to pull this second city out of it spiral of violence, inequality, and despair?
I believe so.
“This generation coming up–unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic–I've seen you in every corner of the country,” the president said. “You believe in a fair, just, inclusive America; you know that constant change has been America's hallmark, something not to fear but to embrace, and you are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward.” It will not be easy, on a local or national scale, but to not try is to accept the status quo, or worse, defeat.
President Obama’s time in office was neither easy nor perfect. But for many, he represented the possibility of what could be accomplished as a country and as a human being. Sometimes you need a great leader to give hope and a terrible one to inspire mental fortitude and action. “You were the change,” the president said last night.
I couldn’t entirely agree, for the change is not over. We are the change. The work is not over. That is the thing about hope: it pulls you through the darkest of hours, even when change feels impossible.
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