Black D.C. and President Obama come to the end of the road
The city prepares for life without the Obama family in the White House
You hear it on Washington, D.C.’s, famed 14th and U streets — from Ben’s Chili Bowl to Apple Lounge to Marvin’s and Mulebone. You hear it at the bars in Adams Morgan and the W rooftop bar overlooking the White House. You hear in Arlington, Virginia, and Bowie, Maryland. The temperature in D.C. changes, but the conversation rarely does. It’s really here. The last week of the Obama era.
The DMV — short for D.C., Maryland and (Northern) Virginia — has trudged along in a fog of uncertainty and shock since Donald J. Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in one of the ugliest, and (details emerge by the hour) perhaps most sinister presidential campaign in history. The numbers tell the story: The DMV all went blue — Clinton garnered 92.8 percent of the vote in D.C., 60.5 percent in Maryland and 65.3 percent and 55.4 percent, respectively, in Fairfax and Loudoun — Virginia’s two most populated counties, both in suburban D.C.
The fog persists, even though no city in the world is better equipped for transition quite like the District of Columbia. It experiences the same transfer of power every four to eight years. “We’ll still come to see the White House,” said Kim Kendrick, a lawyer and D.C. resident for the past quarter of a century. “It’s what we do. We adjust.”
Adjusting is one thing. Moving on requires much more of an emotional detachment. It’s eerily quiet on 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Even the end doesn’t feel like the end. And it won’t until Friday when the soon-to-be canonized final photo of The Obamas walking, fingers interlocked, with their backs to the White House floods social media and news outlets worldwide. Photographers, both amateur and professional, attempt to capture the final moments of an era. People jog and walk by. They take selfies. Two young women stand in front of the fence with the White House in the background. They take Snapchat videos: “This is it, guys! We’re here!” they yell. “We miss you, Barack! We miss you, Michelle!” Others stand alone. “I feel good that we got through eight years. I got to see this president, I got to see him survive and I got to see him do the things that he did,” said Kendrick. “No scandals that we have to be ashamed of. He doesn’t have to hold his head down. He’s not walking out of the office in shame.”
Some shed tears of goodbye to a president — a black president — many have not always seen eye-to-eye with, but they still cherished his grace, dignity, and patience. Goodbye to a president and family who saw America at its best while many D.C. residents saw a different America. Goodbye to a family — a black family — that had become, by proxy, their own.
Alethia Fields is just trying to keep warm on a freezing January day. Despite the thick black overcoat, wool gloves, and headscarf, she’s cold as she waits at the Van Dorn Street Metro stop in Alexandria, Virginia. Trains seem to run slower the colder it gets. Fields is a 32-year veteran of Arlington County Public Schools — she works with disabled and special-needs children. In the way she speaks about her job is a sense of fulfillment most everyone wishes to achieve. She loves the children she works with. She loves their smiles. But lately it’s been difficult for Fields. Every channel she watches, every news story she reads, seems to threaten her way of life.
“I’m just sad,” Fields says with a deep sigh. “I haven’t stopped thinking about it since … ” Her voice trails off. She refuses to say the name of Obama’s successor. She refers to him only as “the person who got elected.”
Like eight years ago, Fields knows change is coming. “My biggest fear is everything he accomplished gon’ be taken away,” she says, shaking her head. “Obamacare gon’ be taken away. Everybody in general came together when he was elected. And now it seems like everybody is just divided again.”
Elsewhere in the city, there’s fear. But also reflection. Matthew Holmes has, in essence, been Obama’s neighbor the past four years. He is a class of 2016 sports management graduate at Howard University. Both the president and the university hold significant historical weight in the government metropolis once known as “Chocolate City.”
For Holmes and other students who attended the landmark historically black college during the Obama era, “Uncle Barry” — as Holmes referred to him — enhanced their experience. Obama wasn’t an “indoor president,” famously hitting up Ben’s Chili Bowl before even being inaugurated in 2009, and attending Georgetown and Team USA basketball exhibitions at the Verizon Center in Chinatown. Michelle Obama became a Soulcycle regular. Chicago will always be the city that built the legend, but D.C. is where Obama became a cultural icon.
“He was a figure that you’d see out … He made himself one of the people,” said Holmes. “That’s like the coolest thing, you know? It wasn’t that he was above anybody, like he saw anyone as inferior. He made it so fun here [when he was in office].”
There’s that, too — the feel of the city.
“I mean, bro, it’s gonna be 100 percent different,” said D.C. native George McGowan, a senior business management consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton. “It’s gonna be totally different. The whole vibe and the swag. It’s gonna be gone. It’s a sad thing to have to accept. It makes you appreciate what you’ve been able to experience for these last eight years.”
From the moment he announced his campaign for presidency on Feb. 10, 2007, the discussion was always more than “just politics” with Obama. He’s a larger-than-life figure who walked with world leaders, yet never lost his common touch. And he doubled, tripled and quadrupled down on his most important responsibility — being Michelle’s husband and Malia and Sasha’s dad. He is the sobering example of both how far black life has come in America and how far it has yet to travel to achieve the dream of equality. Obama’s presidency, as inspiring as it has been at its peaks, has survived repeated lynchings of his integrity and his legacy. The world saw this firsthand how his detractors openly prayed for his downfall. D.C. had a courtside seat.
For McGowan, there is no Barack without Michelle. “That was real! That was raw emotion! Nothing fake about it!” he said proudly, referencing his farewell speech in Chicago. “So, I think, for me, as I’m going into my engagement and my wedding plans are getting set by the day, it’s all about trying to be the best friend for my lady as I possibly can be. Trying to be supportive of her goals, and vice versa.”
He continued: “I think [Barack and Michelle] were role models, especially in the black community, where everything can kinda get jumbled up and people just do what they gotta do to get by how they get by. That’s just part of how our society is set up. But they set a great example. Love don’t change just because you have the most stressful job or stuff normal people don’t necessarily have to experience, when you go home — home is home. And that love ain’t supposed to change.”
Barack and Michelle Obama were ahead of the curve, both with regard to sense of humor, and self-awareness. For eight years, they lived under Truman Show-like rules. Their every move recorded, their every word and action critiqued to unimaginable degrees. And even now as the incoming administration attempts to bleach their fingerprints from America’s fabric, their energy and their dominating, yet empathetic presence are tattooed on the city’s memory bank. The emotion in their final speeches revealed convictions. But also a subtle motif of regret — leaving the country in the hands of Trump. They’ll perhaps never admit as much publicly, but there’s no way either Obama could have envisioned a transition with this chaos and of this magnitude. But their ability to remain inclusive never fades.
“I like the fact that they were always real people,” Fields said. “Just like I am.”
Obama out. Almost.