Chicago celebrates Barack Obama as a game-changer
People at the president’s farewell speech say they’re worried, but resolute about what’s next
By late Tuesday afternoon, inside a cavernous hall at Chicago’s McCormick Place convention center, the thousands of people snaking around barricades and along walls had grown restive. Eventually, there was a flutter of bodies toward the front of the line, and a chant began to build. Yes we can! Yes we can! Yes we can! the multitudes called out and swayed until their chants became roars. Finally, the gatekeepers signaled, and people of all stripes, the American tableau, began to rush toward the security checkpoints.
A new chant rose as they ran: O-BA-MA! O-BA-MA! O-BA-MA!
Three friends, who had lined up for tickets at 4:30 a.m. Saturday for tickets and returned to McCormick Place on Tuesday morning at 6:30 so they could be first in line, double-timed it toward the exhibition hall. It was “not enough to be in the building,” said Brianna Woolridge, 28. Their president had come home to say goodbye and they needed to be as close as possible to the stage.
Just behind the trio, Cynthia Whitemon moved as fast as she could while pushing her red walker. She was from the South Side — “Obamaland,” she called it — and she’d been at the president’s 2008 acceptance speech in Grant Park, she’d been at his first inauguration, and now she had to be here as Obama said farewell to her, to the nation, perhaps to the city of Chicago, she feared, panting and pushing her walker.
Behind her, as far as the eye could see, the crowd surged toward the hall.
Barack Obama had been the change they believed in. Now, with the election of Donald Trump, thousands of hurt-up believers hoped he would preach a word and drop a balm. They needed his final speech as president to have inspiration enough to calm their fears and hope enough to sustain them in the days to come.
The night before the speech, Gelene Brown, an attorney who grew up on the South Side, tried to put words to her emotions and need to be at Obama’s farewell. “I’ve got to hold on to this moment for as long as possible,” Brown said, inside the walk-up, where she, her husband and daughter live, five minutes from the Obamas’ Chicago home. “I woke up after the election in serious dread.”
Brown remembers Obama speaking at her boarding school when he was the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. She used to see him and his family around the Hyde Park neighborhood when he was a state senator. She made a pilgrimage to Obama’s first inauguration. She’s been to the White House Easter Egg Roll twice and on multiple White House tours. His presidency is a “game-changer for black children,” she said. “It means something to have someone in the White House who looks like you.”
On Saturday, she and her daughter Grace, 9, rose before dawn to wait hours for tickets to the speech. There’s only one degree of Obama separation on the South Side, and she knew people who could hook her up, but “with Grace, I wanted her to see and feel the importance of waiting in line,” Brown said. Grace doesn’t call Obama the first black president. She calls George Washington and John F. Kennedy the white ones.
Inside McCormick Place, the lights were dimmed, and some began to cry when Obama took the stage. They stomped and applauded when he opened with “My fellow Americans … ,” and they chanted Four more years! when he talked about coming to Chicago and finding his purpose in life. “It was on these streets where I witnessed the power of faith, and the quiet dignity of working people in the face of struggle and loss,” Obama told the crowd.
Brown had already detailed what she needed to hear in the speech. “I want him to celebrate his eight years and give kind of a roundup, but I also want kind of a blueprint for what comes next,” she said. She wanted to hear him talk about how they were going to fight the rollback of civility and rights under a Trump presidency. “I’m not ready for him to say it’s going to be OK,” Brown said before the speech. “I’m ready for him to become the community activist again!”
Inside the hall, Obama reminded Americans of what they’d already braved. “The work of democracy has always been hard. It’s always been contentious. Sometimes it’s been bloody. For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step backward. But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion. A constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all, and not just some.”
Eugene Robinson Jr., a college and career specialist for Chicago Public Schools, wasn’t able to get tickets to the farewell, but said he’d be tearing up as he watched from home. Obama’s presidency was critical for African-American males “to see what hope looks like,” he said. It gave him an example to pass on to students, and to hold on to for himself. “I believe in diversity. I believe in opportunity. I believe in all those things he believes in,” Robinson said. Though part of him wants to avoid watching the news or reading about the next president, that doesn’t honor the last eight years. “If I check out, they win,” he said.
Robinson’s belief extends to the first lady, whom Robinson says gives him goosebumps. “Michelle Obama as first lady was amazing” for black people and for the nation, he said. She reminded him of the most important women in his life, his mother and his grandmother, who celebrated family and preached the gospel of education.
And at one point during the speech, Obama invoked the first lady. “Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, girl of the South Side,” he said, and paused, struggling with the emotion that played visibly across his face as the crowd cheered. “For the past 25 years, you have not only been my wife and mother of my children, you have been my best friend. You took on a role you didn’t ask for. And you made it your own. With grace and with grit and with style and good humor. You made the White House a place that belongs to everybody. And a new generation sets its sights higher because it has you as a role model. So you have made me proud, and you have made the country proud.”
A tear appeared in the corner of his eye. In the crowd, some of the tears spilled onto faces.
Tuesday morning, students gathered inside the library at Kenwood Academy High School, four blocks from the Obamas’ home, to talk about what Obama meant to them, and to recount his most memorable moments. There was the time he sang Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York, or that time he was in a locker room formally shaking a white guy’s hand, then code-switching to dap up Kevin Durant in a brother-man hug. He was the only president some of them clearly remembered, he’d normalized black excellence and White House cool, and while they were nervous about a Trump presidency, “growing up with Barack Obama gave me the inspiration and the motivation I need,” said Brandon Brown, a 17-year-old senior.
Ayanna Watkins, 18, agreed: “It is fear coming within us, but our generation, because we are so aware, we know there’s the negative side that oppresses you, but it’s the other side that pushes you to make a difference.”
Laurence Mintor, an 18-year-old senior wore a Cornell scarf around his neck. He’d gotten to meet the president on a White House tour once, and said he came back “with so much momentum and encouragement.” Obama’s legislative achievements aside, “I feel like the biggest impact he made was on the inside, to people’s morale.”
Sejahari Saulter-Villegas, 17, said he’d be watching the speech. He said Obama’s two presidential terms helped define “what it means to be black in America — it makes you feel limitless.” He’d been traumatized by the election of Trump, but that Obama “inspires us to take that leap and keep that faith that our history has given us all we need to be the most powerful people regardless of who is on top. Our people have always had that power and that strength to change the world.”
At the podium Tuesday night, the president urged Americans to hold on to the only change they could ever really believe in. “My fellow Americans, it has been the honor of my life to serve you. I won’t stop. In fact, I’ll 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 am asking you to believe, not in my ability to bring about change, but in yours.
“I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents, that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists, that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders 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.”
The crowd erupted again. They applauded all the history with all the emotion of the moment. They cheered, nonstop, celebrating the past eight years as a talisman against the uncertainty of the upcoming four.
Heading out afterward, Brown said the speech was exactly what she had been looking for. Her cousin, Denitra Taylor, said Obama “made us responsible for the future. He said pick up a clipboard and get to work.”
The part about Michelle Obama made the women cry because he paid tribute “not only to Michelle, his wife and first lady, but to all the women on the South Side just like her, and black women in general,” said Brown, “who’ve always taken on jobs they didn’t ask for and made them work.”
Nearby, Brown and Taylor’s nephew Isaiah Stanton, 19, a sophomore at Paul Quinn College in Dallas, called the president’s speech reassuring, and said he appreciated the shoutout to young people. “I feel very empowered,” Stanton said. Trump will bring something different, and we will listen, he said, but “if it’s not right, we are the people, and we will change it.”
“The speech was really moving,” said Grace, the fourth grader, “but I’m not ready for him to leave.”
The crowd moved without urgency toward the doors, toward the rain in Chicago, and nighttime America. Brown took one last picture on her cellphone. It was of a blonde woman, walking slowly, just ahead of them. The back of her black T-shirt carried a message in blue cursive letters: “We miss you already.”