(MCT) — I saved the newspapers from the week after Barack Obama was elected president of the United States, and a few days ago I fished them out of the basket, hidden behind a living room chair, where they’ve gathered dust for the past four years.
I leafed through the front pages and special sections, filled with triumphal photos and headlines, souvenirs of a victory that belonged not only to Obama, but to the city that seeded his rise to power.
In the giant pictures, Chicago is a mighty kingdom, its swashbuckling skyline a dazzle of electric white against the black November sky. The headlines blare like a symphony of trumpets:
Chicago revels in the glow of the Obama victory. City walks on air. Obama’s ascension bathes his city in a fresh and progressive new light. Chicago becomes the epicenter of the world.
One photo shows the banners, installed faster than a sneeze, by our erstwhile mayor, Richard M. Daley: Congratulations Chicago’s Own Barack Obama.
Anyone who was in town that night — certainly anyone who joined the mass pilgrimage to Grant Park — remembers how it felt, and even if you didn’t vote for Chicago’s own, you could admire the Chicago that his victory put on worldwide display.
The autumn-tart evening light. Remember that? And the surprising air, almost summer-sweet. And how we the people — white, black, everything else, and not only Democrats — flooded the downtown streets. The sound in those streets, without snark or irony, of the words “history” and “hope.”
And the dancing. Remember? The crying, the honking, the hugging, the cellphone photos sent to impress faraway friends with the fact that we were here.
Grant Park. Chicago. Our kind of town.
By the time CNN called the race for Obama, 240,000 people had assembled in and around what the network dubbed “Jubilation Park,” and not a one of them was arrested for making trouble.
How open and inspiring it all seemed that night, both the political process and this shiny, clean, modern city, as grand as an empire, as intimate as a village, stunningly peaceful despite an undercurrent of fear that something too terrible to name might happen to Chicago’s own, on Chicago soil.
How fresh and undefended the newly anointed president seemed, despite the bulletproof glass, invisible via TV, that flanked him as he walked onto the Grant Park stage with his wife and young daughters to meet all those upturned faces, all those tears.
“This is the highlight in Chicago’s history to have the first African-American president hail from Chicago and have a president from Chicago,” Mayor Daley told a New York Times reporter, with his unique eloquence.
The country seemed liberated, however momentarily, from its racist roots. And however much that moment belonged to the whole world, it belonged, just a fraction more, to Chicago.
And then time, as it does, passed.
When I pulled the old newspapers out the other day, I noticed that they’d begun to yellow and stiffen with age. The story they told, of liberation and opportunity, in Chicago and beyond, seemed dated, too, though the headline that begins “Harsh economic, political realities” could just as easily be written today.
Meanwhile, racism lives on, everywhere, and Barack Obama doesn’t live here anymore.
He rarely visits his South Side house, and when he brings his election night party back to town this week, he and it won’t feel as personal to Chicago.
This time, win or lose, he’ll greet the news from inside the black lakeside fortress known as McCormick Place. We the people will not be there, not in the all-comers way people were there last time to enjoy a freewheeling outdoor fiesta, perched on the edge of history, with a fabulous skyline view.
On Election Night 2012, the typical will replace the magical.
As for the “fresh and progressive new light” Obama’s election cast on Chicago?
The Chicago that the media broadcast to the world lately is one that, for all its glories, is still shadowed by struggling schools, political scoundrels and young people killing young people in impoverished, mostly black, neighborhoods. In other words, a city that looks a lot like it did before the election of Chicago’s own.
That’s not to say that Chicago and Obama no longer matter to each other. Not as much, but they do.
Go to Valois, the Hyde Park cafeteria-style restaurant Obama used to frequent, and you can find plenty of Obama enthusiasts ordering from the giant poster labeled “President Obama’s Favorites.”
Go to the Hyde Park Hair Salon, where Obama used to get his hair cut, and you’ll find an Obama sticker on the window, plus barbers who still proclaim him a guy from the neighborhood. On Thursday, when I stopped by, you also would have found a Swiss television crew, seeking the Chicago angle.
Go to Europe and say you’re from Chicago, and you’re likely to encounter strangers who instead of replying “Al Capone!” now say “Obama!” and usually as a compliment.
At the White House, the president remains surrounded by Chicago aides. At Chicago City Hall, one of those former aides is now the mayor.
And Obama’s presidency has introduced the term “the Chicago Way” into the national vocabulary; it is often inappropriately applied and never a compliment.
No one should be surprised that the magic of Grant Park four years ago has given way to more complicated moods. Magic, like all forms of romance, is not built to last.
Walking away from the park that night, I passed some college-age students, who had probably voted for the first time, making fun of Obama’s rival.
“John McCain!” one cackled. “You’re old! You’re a loser!”
That arrogance stuck with me as vividly as the evening’s more uplifting scenes. I wanted to say:
Dude! You’re young! You think this is how politics works? You pick a candidate, you vote, you win and the world changes? Wait. You’ll learn that change rarely happens fast. That even winning politicians surrender something vital to survive.
And that almost nothing is as exciting the second time around.
Election Day 2012, whoever wins, will be very different from Election Day 2008, in Chicago and elsewhere.
But it’s important to remember this: Something extraordinary did happen four years ago.
A country with a racist past elected a dark-skinned president who lives in a city with its share of racial shame.
That election didn’t change the city or the country as much as some people hoped. It changed things in ways other people deplore.
Either way, it left a valuable mark.
The other day I visited a Chicago public grade school where almost all the students are black. On the wall was a big picture of President Obama next to words like “Has kinky hair,” “Has brown skin,” “Lives in Chicago.”
The overarching caption beside the photo was something that was barely imaginable until that night in Grant Park: “Just Like Me.”
That’s part of what happened in Chicago four years ago. Since that night, a black kid in Chicago can look at the president and think, “Just like me.”
That will always matter, no matter what happens next, and no matter how much those newspapers fade.