January, 2009 Changed my Life


I was eight years old when Barack Obama shifted the American narrative on identity.


On January 20th, 2009, America’s views on racial identity were reformed with the influence of the first black president in America. A nation which prided itself on the power of the people dogeared a date in its history book for future generations to look up to.


My mother shouted excitedly as the inauguration began, pulling me away from The Wind in the Willows and into American politics alongside 306.8 million Americans. I closed my book carefully, diligent to not fold any corners, and slid an old library bookmark inside, sighing. What was more interesting than the adventures of anthropomorphic friends, Rat, Mole, Badger, and Toad?


The lumpy brown couch in front of our television set creaked as I climbed into the center, nestled between my parents and older siblings. The television screen was pixelated, making the crowded figures look like small animated dots on the old Samsonite. With the temptation of a book laying on my bed, it was hard to focus on the opening of the inauguration. I felt my eyes wander, resting on the old TV stand. It was an old Syrian piece gifted to us by my father’s family. The stand was wooden, its surface deeply ingrained with handmade markings. Although it didn’t stylistically correlate with the rest of the room, it was a cultural reminder and stood out like my Syrian heritage. It was as much a part of the house as my heritage was a part of me.


The crowd began to applaud, interrupting my thought process, and I glanced at the screen. People were starting to stand, cheering, as a woman began to introduce Obama’s entrance: “It is my great personal honor to present the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama.” The applause grew louder and the camera panned over the audience, showing a diverse mix of people jumping up and down, cheering and clapping.


Obama stepped up on the large, white pedestal and smiled, waving at the throngs of people crowding the streets. Everyone was clapping and chanting Obama’s name, filling the cold January air with a kinetic energy that could be felt through the cameras and the TV screen. I shivered and burrowed deeper into the lumpy blanket, enraptured by the pixelated screen. Obama stopped waving and clasped his hands around the pedestal, gripping its cold surface. “The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose out better history,” he bellowed, “to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all men are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.” His voice boomed through the microphone, reverberating across the large crowds in a strong wave. “For we know our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. . . We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth.”

As a second-generation Muslim born to two immigrant parents, I grew up with the identity of being ‘other.’ I was born in New York, the state which welcomed immigrants from nations scattered across the world, and my parents had multifaceted roots in Syria and Danmark. Regardless of my American birthright, racial slurs pelted me on my way to the store, the library, even in my local Dunkin Donuts. Like our engraved television stand, I was singled out from the crowd—discarded from those who saw race as the defining factor of nationality and belonging. The American mold was unattainable to fill when my heritage stuck out like a sore thumb. I was always other. With the inauguration of Obama’s presidency, suddenly everything felt relative. Americanism wasn’t defined by racial, cultural, or linguistic backgrounds—it was based on the core pursuit of happiness, equality, and freedom of speech.


By Deema Alawa

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