On October 11, 2008, I woke up in the middle of the night to stand outside and wait for the Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama to speak. I had read all of his books, kept all the important newspaper clippings, obsessively watched CNN, and could tell you random facts like, “Did you know that Senator Obama is a two time Grammy winner?”
I was 18, excited to be a first time participant in a democratic process that had been denied to those whose flesh had been split open by the whip in the infancy of our nation, and I knew my candidate – He was living history.
He was the message of grassroots change, of empowerment, of all the possibilities of American greatness if only we had the audacity to hope and as I stood in line at a North Philadelphia recreation center to cast my vote, I could feel all of those things. And although I knew that the Obama years would indelibly mark and shape my life, I had no idea how profound it would be.
At the beginning of his presidency, I had never identified heavily as American. I was Black and the concept of being a proud Black person and a proud American was mutually exclusive as I had not yet reconciled the two. In my head, to be a proud American or a patriot meant to blindly declare America’s greatness while overlooking the crueler parts of our history. I foolishly felt as though all of the particularly barbaric ways Black people suffered through Slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow were being ignored if I were to ever say that I was a proud American.
The Obamas helped to change that for me.
Because of them it was cool to be Black and a proud American at the same time. I could love my country and still recognize my ancestor’s past because their hope for the future was living in a house that was built with their blood. I could be a proud American because in the highest office, my own identity was validated in the way that the President would expertly code switch and in Michelle Obama’s facial expressions – easily recognizable to all Black women and girls. My identity was carefully woven into Sasha and Malia’s cornrows and twists and in the face of their grandmother who looked liked she played zero games… And I was proud.
If could go back and ask that same 18 year old who woke up in the middle of a night to hear a senator speak, “How are you going to spend your twenties?” I would have never thought that I would spend four years in National Service. But during the second year of AmeriCorps, I found myself being pulled towards Peace Corps and as fate and a very long application process would have it, I would be leaving for Peru in August 2015 to serve as a Youth Development volunteer.
Being a Peace Corps volunteer is often seen as one of the highest forms of altruism – giving two years of our lives in a country and culture that is very different from our own. And although these 27 months are well worth the effort, service can without a doubt be difficult at times. It is uniquely difficult when a volunteer, the de facto American ambassador, does not fit the stereotypical image of an American.
I do not have pale skin, blonde hair or blue eyes. I have brown skin made darker by the harshness of the Northern Peruvian sun. I have a broad nose, big lips, and I wear a head wrap over my kinky-curly hair. I am markedly different from everybody in my town and as I walk down the street or through the market, long stares and turned heads remind me of this.
When people decide to vocalize their curiosity regarding my appearance, they ask if I am from Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil, Cuba – expecting anywhere but the United States of America. And when I do respond, “Soy de Los Estados Unidos. Soy Estadounidense,” they are surprised but more importantly, again, I am proud.
Goal Two of Peace Corps is to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of people served. And much of my Goal Two work consists of explaining to people that yes, there are millions of Black people in America that are not the product of an immigration by choice. I have to explain that our families have been in the United States since before the 1800s and that just because my ancestors were dehumanized and enslaved, it does not make me any less American.
It can be mentally draining to have to confront doubts surrounding your nationality with such regularity – especially knowing what sacrifices were made so that you could claim that identity. And there’s one vastly important thing has made my Goal Two task more bearable and that’s the Obamas.
Their example has not only changed the way that I see my own “Americaness” but it has also altered the way other people see me as well. When someone says that they didn’t know there were Black people in America, I usually respond with, “How could you not? Our president, the most important American, is Black and so are his wife and kids.” It might take a second or two but almost always the person smiles in recognition of their mistake and more often then not they’ll respond with something along the lines of, “Obama is a good man. I like him.”
This small interaction has changed so many perspectives during the course of my service and has undoubtedly saved my sanity when a person is asking me where my great, great grandmother is from, still unconvinced that I could be that American. I see myself in The First Family and many Peruvians, unversed in the consequences of the transatlantic slave trade, eventually learn to see them in me as well. This, I know, has been a unique treasure in my service – an unexpected gift from an unexpected presidency.
Like a lot of people I know, the results of this election had me feeling defeated instead of empowered, hopeless instead of hopeful, and a little more ashamed instead of proud. People continued to ask where I was from and at times it seemed more attractive to say I was from Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil, or Cuba than to admit that I was American and subject myself to a flurry of questions regarding the election outcome. And last night as I watched President Obama give his farewell address to the nation, I asked myself, “What next?”
What do I when I come home from service this year and there is no longer the example of the Obamas and all the different kinds of people who supported such an administration – the Tina Tchens, the Sarada Peries and the Hope Halls. But just as Obama started his campaign, he ended his presidency – leaving us with words of hope and letting us know that as private citizens we can still work to change the things that unsettle us about our country and that despite what seems to be a xenophobic effort to reject all of the people and diverse histories that make up America, we can still claim the identity as our own.
When people ask me where I’m from, I’ll think of how Michelle Obama looks like me and continue to rightfully, and unapologeticaly claim the United States. For the next few months here in Peru, I’ll continue to say in my accented Spanish “sí se puede” even on the rough days when I would rather be doing anything but answering skeptical questions about my heritage. And when I finish my service this year, I’ll continue to hope for and work towards a more diverse, inclusive, empathetic America that embraces change.
In my imagination, the Obamas are somewhere on a beach in Hawaii reading this while taking a well deserved break and they know how much they have influenced my service. But I know that in reality this is a gift for which I will probably never be able to give a formal thanks.
Nevertheless, I wanted to say thanks to them for sharing their lives with us these past eight years and ultimately leaving the world a positive reflection of Black American identity.
Happy Black History Month, Ya’ll
Last year, in honor of Black History Month, I focused all of my posts on my experiences as an African American PCV, and this year I’ll be doing the same.