President Obama gives North Carolina A&T students a bittersweet blessing
In the final days of his term, the president’s visit gives students hope for change amid trying times
“When America gets a cold, black people get pneumonia.” – President Barack Obama, Oct. 11
The room busted up in laughter. But then this hint of introspection sank in, maybe a second later, this knowingness among most of the 250 African-American college students who had lived with a black president for more than a third of their lives – after the land of the free and home of the brave had not elected one its first 232 years.
They’re finally able to vote, but their candidate can’t run anymore.
“It’s actually really weird knowing that someone else will be in office and knowing that right now I can’t vote for Obama,” Sam Hunt said.
Hunt is a senior at the nation’s largest historically black college and university (HBCU), a business economic major who starts at guard on North Carolina A&T’s men’s basketball team. Like most of North Carolina A&T’s finest, Hunt feels more hopeful about his country’s future than sick. Still, after the president spent what will likely be his final time in office with college students on campus, he added, “It’s really different knowing someone else will be in control of America.”
The “Barack Nostalgia Tour” made its first visit to North Carolina A&T in Greensboro at an intimate question-and-answer session Tuesday night in a curtained-off Alumni-Foundation Events Center. The Undefeated’s A Conversation With the President on Race, Sports and Achievement, moderated by Stan Verrett, produced humor, heart and, most of all, a harken back to 2008: hope.
Hope among a generation of young black adults, who — like all of us — surprisingly woke up a few years ago in a country again full of black-white animus, a place where the term “post-racial” lasted maybe a minute.
They have most every reason to feel as disenfranchised as their N.C. A&T brothers and sisters from the 1960s. And yet, moments after the president left the room, spirits soared. Longing for a man who they feel came to represent them first with his character and then his color.
“I think what probably touched me the most is that he did touch upon not only student-athletes, but women,” Jillian Nobles said. She’s a senior entrepreneurship major from Long Beach, California, who plays third base on the Aggies’ softball team. “And black women [in particular], how the roles of black women are not easy. It’s not explained and a lot of people kind of leave it behind. That was kind of what he started off with as ‘behind every black man is a black woman.’
“He also mentioned Title IX and how not only as a woman, but student-athletes, black student-athletes are making an impact and medaling. Seeing all that just inspired me to keep going. I’m definitely taking this for the rest of my life and telling my children.”
Nhawndie Smith, a senior political science student from Hampton, Virginia, spoke for much of the assembled, which included other HBCU students in the White House’s My Brother’s Keepers program and an assortment of media.
“The experience was surreal,” she said. “It was an honor.”
She added, “One of the major points that he made that really touched me was him talking about divesting from prisons and things that are harmful to our communities. But actually investing more into our actual communities, to rid some of the problems that are going on, like violence and other negative things that have held us back.”
Nearly eight years after the journey began, Obama came to the alma mater of the Greensboro Four, whose historic 1960 Woolworth’s lunch-counter sit-in ignited a grass-roots movement to push back against racial injustice throughout the South.
Three months from leaving office, the first African-American president made his inaugural trip to the campus preserving the bullet holes from 1969 in red brick, next to a reflecting pool — the Greensboro Uprising, when students and National Guardsmen exchanged gunfire for four days because a segregated high school wouldn’t accept a popular young black man becoming student body president.
Something felt so right, then, walking up to 21-year-old Jordan Greene, an accounting major and now N.C. A&T’s student body president. He will soon be a first-generation college graduate, breaking the ceiling for a family so proud of him.
“I know things are not particularly great in many parts of society right now, but I can’t feel anything more than this uplifting feeling going forward after seeing the president sit a few feet from me and hearing him,” Greene said. “I went to the inauguration in 2008, standing back pretty far, where I watched on a TV. All I remember was it was so cold. I was like 13 years old.
“Now I’m 21 and I’m two steps away from him. That’s progress, right?”
Naomi Nance, a senior majoring in journalism and mass communication, concentrating in public relations, got her ticket through the Office of Veteran & Disability Support Services on campus. She has lupus, but that hasn’t deterred her from an expected graduation date of Dec. 10. She, too, felt blessed.
“Being in the same room with him, there’s such a glow and power and intelligence that you feel and respect,” she said. “I’m still in awe I’m even here.”
As they shuffled slowly out of the room about 20 minutes after the president and his detail left, there was this mixed feeling, blessed as much as bittersweet.
“I had the honor of going to both of the inaugurations,” Darren White of Fort Washington, Maryland, said. “It’s a great ending to it – seeing him leave office and end his last meeting with students here.”
His takeaway from the president’s message spoke for much of the room: “There needs to be more love and coming together and understanding. Hate breeds nothing but violence.”
Darren White, Sam Hunt, Naomi Nance, Jordan Greene, Nhawndie Smith, Jillian Nobles and the rest of their classmates and the crowd left the building a few moments later. Temperatures were falling outside, from mid-60s to the low 50s within an hour. But on a college campus in Greensboro Tuesday night, America didn’t feel cold.
Justin Tinsley contributed to this article.