Reflections on my big Obama moment

In January, I joined more than 6,000 people at the Toronto Convention Centre to hear former U.S. president Barack Obama speak about “the future of work.” Seeing him in person for the first time got me reflecting on the past, and what remains my most impactful Obama moment.

I was two months into my first year of law school at McGill University when, on November 4, 2008, the world stopped to watch whether Barack Obama would win the 2008 U.S. presidential election. It was a typically chilly night in Montreal, and I was crowded into the small living room of a “student chic” condo of one of the other five Black law students in my year. Four of five of us were there, along with half a dozen non-Black, mostly white fellow law students.

Our anticipation grew steadily as the night went on. Frenzied, boozy chatter and excited laughter dimmed to a hum of quiet tension on the occasional comments coming out of CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. I still remember the pregnant pause and sudden stillness in the room when he finally announced, “This is a moment that a lot of people have been waiting for. This is a moment that potentially could be rather historic.”

We held our breath. And then, it happened. The screen lit up: “BARACK OBAMA ELECTED PRESIDENT.” The room erupted into raucous cheers, shouts, tears, hugs and high-fives.

It was a rapturous moment for all of us. The warmongering, exceptionalist George W. Bush presidency had been disastrous by any measure; here was someone offering a hopeful way out of the country’s self-inflicted political quagmires. But this election night was a particularly powerful moment for me and the other Black law students in the room. It tied us together with a surge of excitement, a gripping euphoria, and the pleasurable feeling of infinite possibilities.

This was not just because Obama is Black. That mattered, of course. But Obama’s victory also helped shore up our own insecurities as legal students at one of Canada’s leading (and overwhelmingly white) law schools.

We were hyper aware of the fact that before Obama became president, he was a confident yet sometimes uncertain Black student trying to navigate the challenges of a law school that had a racial dynamic not much different from the one we experienced at McGill. Obama felt like us. And on that night in November 2008, he was us. We had won!

In the midst of the celebration, it felt like a part of the weight of centuries of Afrophobia, slavery, segregation and anti-Black racism had been lifted off our hearts, minds and spirits. I remember pausing at one point and quietly thinking to myself, “Is this what freedom feels like?”

Yet, as joyous as this occasion was, the 2008 election is not my most memorable Obama moment. It’s what happened to me shortly after that has marked me most deeply to this day.

Strolling the Montreal sidewalks home, I overheard a few short words from a conversation between two white men and a white woman a few paces ahead of me. “Umm, does this mean that we have to respect Black people now?” Strangers to me, they burst into laughter, then noticed I was within earshot.

The trio quickly hushed and scurried across the street. When they got to the other side, their laughter continued, only this time with a hint of uneasy nervousness.

Perhaps they were embarrassed. Perhaps they felt they were laughing ironically at the status quo collective disrespect of Black people. I think it’s more likely their embarrassment was from the slip-up of letting a Black person hear how poorly society truly felt about Black people, even when one of them had ascended to the U.S. presidency.

This is my big Obama moment. Not the historic win, the feelings of freedom it inspired. Not the sensation of floating through the downtown streets of Montreal as I made my way home that night after the election party, excitedly wondering about the possibilities that would come next.

No, the moment I most remember is how quickly the bubble burst on my dreamy and joyous fantasies of a Black U.S. presidency. It has helped me stay woke ever since.

The Obama event in Toronto this January featured a who’s who of Black community leaders, professionals and politicians. Since then, many have asked me what it was like to have my “Obama moment.” I tell them it was sobering.

What I’ve really wanted to say is that, sure, symbolically, Obama is cool. But in reality, what Black people need is to be respected politically, economically, socially. Without this, “hope and change” is just a joke.


Anthony N. Morgan is a Toronto-based human rights lawyer, policy consultant and community educator. His column, Colour-coded Justice, appears regularly in the CCPA Monitor.

One comment

  1. Thanks for that reflection on your real “Obama moment”. I’m sure it has much meaning for you, and it was a sad way to have the euphoria of the Obama win ripped away from you.

    I too was euphoric when Obama’s victory was announced. I thought at last there would be a president who would behave differently. However, I was sadly mistaken.

    My Obama moments occurred over a period of time as it became clear that despite his racial background, despite what he experienced growing up as a person of colour and an oppressed minority, ultimately as president he acted no differently than his white predecessors in the Oval Office.

    He sided with the moneyed elites after the economic meltdown — whites who created the crisis were never penalized personally and none ever saw the inside of a jail cell, while American Blacks and other minorities saw their meager wealth stolen by white Wall Street financiers, who got richer after the meltdown.

    He sided with the military industrial complex and war mongers in the US by destroying the nation of Libya and creating a new source of terrorism. The US has still not compensated ordinary Libyans for making their life a living hell. In addition, he was complicit if not responsible for the destabilization of Syrian and the creation of the worst refugee crisis since World War 2.

    He continued and expanded George W. Bush’s illegal drone program of extra-judicial assassinations which, while targeting terrorists, resulted in thousands of innocent civilians, including children and babies being killed in Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia.

    He continued America’s unflinching support of Israeli brutality and atrocities against Palestinians, and even signed off on a 10-year, US$40 billion arms deal to Israel, weapons which Israel uses against Palestinians.

    Obama has great PR and he speaks eloquently. He replaced one of the worst president’s that the US had seen and was followed in the oval office by someone who was even worse than Bush. But he has much innocent blood on his hands.

    He was not a great president and history will show that. Being somewhat better than the worst presidents the US has ever seen is not much of an achievement to hang your hat on. Being an eloquent speaker does not make you a great human being. Being fawned over by celebrities doesn’t make you a decent person.

    Obama had great hope but he frittered it away by not acting decisively in his first two years when Democrats controlled all branches of government. And by continuing some of the military and foreign affairs doctrines of Bush, Obama entered the pantheon of US war criminals.

    Obama will never see the inside of a court or a jail cell as he should (along with Hillary Clinton), and as Bush and Trump should. But he will have a place in US history as the first non-white to be president. And sadly that is the only significant thing that future generations will remember him for.

    He may be Black, he may have had some minor policy achievements, but he did nothing to change the trajectory of the US as a nation that is one of the biggest perpetrators of war crimes and state terrorism of the last hundred years.

    Those are my Obama moments and that is how he will be remembered by me and the many Muslims who survived his foreign policy disasters that killed tens of thousands.

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