I remember 9/11 well. I was 18. I was heading of to college, about to, for the first time ever, live away from home. I’d decided to move to California, halfway across the country from my hometown of Overland Park, Kansas, and on 9/11, me and my dad were halfway to California. We were in Flagstaff, Arizona, actually, on a quick stopover to visit the Grand Canyon.
That morning I turned on the TV to check ESPN. Instead, I found out the world I’d be entering college into a world completely different than the one I’d graduated high school from. The first thought on my mind as I saw the twin towers in flames – “please, let it not be Arab terrorists.”
I want you all to think for a second – on those first few days, when America was twisted inside out. I knew about the Japanese internments during World War II, of the history of slavery and subsequent Jim Crow segregation that had only ended when my dad was my age. As a brown American, not of Arab origin, but fully aware of the fact that most Americans could not tell the difference, I honestly wondered for a few days whether America would accept me anymore.
Fear gripped me.
Osama Bin Laden. He was everywhere. Terrorism had become communism of our era. My generation now had it’s JFK moment. Fear was pervasive, onmipresent. Not far from where me and my dad spent the following night, September 12th, at a hotel where the receptionist’s eyes were glued to pictures of Bin Laden on the news, Balbir Singh, a Sikh-American, was murdered in an hate crime for refusing to remove his turban.
It could very easily have been me. That was the world those days.
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Imagine, in those days, if someone had come up to and told you that the next President of the United States would be a brown man with the name Barack Hussein Obama.
Impossible. Never. Not in this country, not after this. Not in my lifetime.
State Senator Barack Obama speaking at an antiwar rally in October of 2002.
From The Audacity of Hope.
I had lunch with a media consultant who had been encouraging me for some time to run for statewide office. As it happened, the lunch was scheduled for late September 2001.
“You realize, don’t you, that the political dynamics have changed,” he said as he picked at his salad.
“What do you mean?” I asked, knowing full well what he meant. We both looked down at the newspaper beside him. There, on the front page, was Osama bin Laden.
“Hell of a thing, isn’t it?” he said, shaking his head. “Really bad luck. You can’t change your name, of course. Voters are suspicious of that kind of thing. Maybe if you were at the start of your career, you know, you could use a nickname or something. But now…” His voice trailed off and he shrugged apologetically before signaling the waiter to bring us the check.
As time passed, my fear abated – or maybe just grew used to it. I felt no backlash personally, though the Bush administration’s illegal detentions of international students were an ominous sign of things to come, I slowly got used to life in the new America. I cringed, though, as I saw President Bush take advantage of Americans shock to push the country in the wrong direction, launching a war in Afghanistan and then, before finishing, preparing to launch another in Iraq. Democrats were scared, and no one was speaking up against the obvious – until a little known Governor from a small northeastern state proclaimed that he was running for President. I became an enthusiastic supporter of Governor Howard Dean, only to have my hopes crushed in Iowa.
I was in Ireland for a summer when my mom called me to tell me about the Democratic Convention and this amazing speech delivered by a “Brack Obama.”
“He’s a Senator. Black. From Illinois. He was incredible,” she told me. I was surprised – I thought that there were no black Senators in the Senate. Turns out I was right.
Obama? What an unfortunate name.
Less than four years later, I was there standing barely 10 feet away, in Des Moines, Iowa, volunteering for GOTC, on caucus night listening as Barack Obama spoke to a crowd of over 5,000, having resoundingly won the caucuses – in the second whitest state in America.
When historians look back at the last seven years, they will wonder how a President entrusted with unprecedented international goodwill and record high approval ratings somehow managed to throw it all away, destroy our standing around the world, and become the least popular President in modern history. And then they will wonder how, out of the ashes of Bush’s failures, a skinny guy with a funny, Muslim sounding name managed to overcome the odds and build the greatest grassroots movement in American history.
What I don’t want them to wonder is how, against impossible odds, an aging, gaff-prone, uninspiring Senator from Arizona was able to overcome even greater odds – an unpopular incumbent over his shoulder, a crumbling economy of which he knew little, and an unpopular war which he supported, to claim the Presidency. That is not how this story ends, and the America that I know and love, the one I believe in, is ready to turn the page on the past and move into the future. Yes we can – and yes, we will. There’s no other way. We’ve come so far, to fail now would truly destroy the American dream.
Cause I’m also a skinny kid with a funny name. But, except for a few weeks back in 2001, I always thought I could do whatever I wanted. It’s good to see that my hopes weren’t mistaken.
When I ran for the U.S. Senate the assumption was that anyone’s name that was close to “Osama” doesn’t stand a chance. So if somebody thought that tacking on “Hussein” in there would be a killer, then I think they underestimate the American people and the seriousness of the problems we face.
Senator Barack Obama , Newsweek, January 1, 2007