After waiting in line for five hours (which was relatively tame compared to some people’s 14), my friends and I, along with thousands of other Americans, had the opportunity to see President Barack Obama’s Farewell Address at McCormick Place in Chicago earlier this week. And was it a speech.
In his nearly hour-long address, the President outlined some of the biggest accomplishments achieved by his team throughout his administration, including re-opening relations with Cuba, forging the Iran nuclear deal, obtaining Supreme Court-approved marriage equality, bringing the unemployment rate to a near 10-year low, and enacting Obamacare so that 20 million more people could have access to health insurance. But what stood out the most about the address wasn’t the outgoing president’s reflections on the past — it was his insight for the the future.
As one of my friends put it as we waited another hour just to leave the building, with Chicagoans and people from around the world crying alike, it was almost as though President Obama had read every article on the Internet as to why Hillary Clinton had lost the race; much of the address focused on almost Senator Bernie Sanders-esque messaging about the effects of the economy on inequality, and the fact that we are not at all in a post-racial society.
“If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking White middle class and an undeserving minority, then workers of all shades are going to be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves,” President Obama said. “If we’re unwilling to invest in the children of immigrants, just because they don’t look like us, we will diminish the prospects of our own children — because those brown kids will represent a larger and larger share of America’s workforce.”
And he didn’t stop there. The President certainly made the most of his last stand at the podium to hammer home the idea that real change comes from “hearts,” and that the long, arduous process of eliminating prejudice and racism in society must come from empathy. In one of the most controversial moments of the night, he quoted the long-heralded-but-recently-discovered-as-a-blatant-racist character from “To Kill A Mockingbird,” Atticus Finch, saying “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
President Obama’s message of acceptance and unity echoed in particular for Muslims and immigrants. As he emphasized the fact that no major terrorist attack has occurred on U.S. soil during his presidency, the president also stressed that the only way to protect ourselves from external threats is by addressing the threats within ourselves — and not by constantly checking on Muslim Americans, but checking on all of ourselves to stop ourselves from creating more divides and alienating immigrants who come to this country with our prejudices. “That’s why I reject discrimination against Muslim Americans,” he said, and was met with great cheers.
Other touching moments from the wrap-up of the address included a tear-jerker tribute to both Vice President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden, and especially to First Lady Michelle Obama and his children (one of whom, Sasha, was notably absent), saying to his family that “You have made me proud, and you have made the country proud.”
All of this, of course, doesn’t detract from the fact that President Obama is far from perfect. Protestors chanting for pardons were drowned out with cheers of “four more years” by the crowd; he has deported more people than any other president, and has continued the U.S.’s policies of mass surveillance and dropping bombs across the Middle East while also supporting Israeli apartheid.
And yet, his Presidency is undeniably special. But maybe it’s not President Obama himself that electrified Chicago and the rest of America, but what he represents — the first Black president, the first community organizer president, and thereby the president who inspired so many people of color like many of us at Muslim Girl to enter into social justice work and to believe that we can someday actually imagine a country where all are truly created equal.
So in spite of my misgivings, thanks, Obama, for your charisma and class, for being living proof that it is possible to love a person and still have to criticize him, and for being the spark that, for better and for worse, forever changed a nation.
Yes We Can.
And Yes We Will.