I remember the night President Obama was elected. That’s what I’m thinking as I’m sitting in the courtyard of the National Portrait Gallery, watching as Barack Obama and Kehinde Wiley pull off the black sheet covering 44’s official portrait.
In November 2008, we had just come home from my younger sister’s track practice, and somehow her teammates and their families ended up at our house. My aunt and cousin were there too. Everyone was crowded around the small TV in our kitchen.
Even at 13 years old I knew something significant was happening. Not just because the first black president was about to be elected, but because our house seemed like the place to be for the night. It usually was not. (Don’t hate me, Mom!)
As the official poll results came in, people started screaming, hugging, jumping on chairs. My aunt was crying, which embarrassed my mother. I specifically remember a group of us laughing as the CNN cameraman panned to a sobbing Jesse Jackson as he stood in the crowd at Obama’s rally in Chicago. He’d made off-color remarks regarding Obama only months earlier.
Even though I was young, I remember experiencing something akin to an out-of-body experience. Because there I was, a young girl, sitting among other African Americans, watching as a family–a husband, wife and two daughters–waved and smiled at a crowd. They were about to be in the White House, and they looked like me, my mom, dad, and sister. I had never seen anything like it, and I didn’t know if I would again.
On the morning of the inauguration, my parents decided at the last minute that we’d take the 45-minute trip from our home in Germantown to the Capitol Building. The ride on the Metro took double the time, the crowds were insane, and once you got downtown, it was almost too cold to enjoy the day. But we made the most of it. It was too exciting not to.
Even though we couldn’t see the ceremony, we heard Obama’s speech booming from speakers surrounding the outskirts of the Capitol. My dad bought us T-shirts from street vendors, stark white but with a colorful, and somewhat sticky, image of the first family ironed onto the front. (I would not wear that shirt today.)
Ten years later, here I am, witnessing an event that brings Obama’s historic presidency full circle. I’m not surrounded by friends and family, but by fellow journalists and select guests. I’m not sitting comfortably at home, but in a generic straight-backed chair. I’m watching a ceremony that’s meant to officially immortalize the image of a president whose term in office is over.
Wiley’s portrait, and Amy Sherald’s of Michelle Obama, put an artistic finishing touch on the Obama years. I watch as the paintings stand tall–Barack’s is colorful and bold, while Michelle’s is subtly strong–and officially mark a point in history that many people in my family thought they’d never see.