Seven years ago, Grammy and I stood in the longest line our little election site, a local elementary school in Washington, D.C., had ever seen. We came to vote for then U.S. Senator Barack Obama.
Much to my dismay, my 91-year-old grandmother didn’t want any special treatment on that day (such as forgoing the hour plus wait, skipping the line and voting in the designated area for the elderly and physically disabled). I asked a couple of times before getting “the eye,” which unfortunately the election volunteer didn’t understand.
Thankfully, the wait turned out to be a beautiful experience. Excitement filled the air and everyone in line was buzzing about Obama! We talked about everything from the content of his powerful speeches to the focus and precision he exercised killing that fly during an interview.
Grammy added her own voting stories about remembering Literacy Tests (the various, ridiculous, unreasonable means used to prevent Black Americans from voting), fighting for equal rights as a woman through the YWCA, and the surreal nature of Obama’s potential presidency.
You see, Grammy is Ruth Odom Bonner, the feisty, creative, protective matriarch of our family, which spans four generations. And Grammy is the reason I got to meet President Obama.
She was chosen to ring the bell for the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture on September 24, 2016. It is, as Rep. John Lewis so eloquently stated, a place in which our ancestors can call “home”—the beautiful collection of our stories and role in everyone’s America. Grammy rang that bell with the biggest smile I’ve ever seen. She has been the wind beneath our family’s wings for years, but that day we all basked in her light.
Grammy fully represents the spectrum of our community. Her father was a slave in Mississippi, and her maternal grandfather fought in the Civil War. She walked to school with Jesse Owens and prayed with Otis Moss, Sr. Her father-in-law played in the Negro League, her sister studied at the Tuskegee Institute under George Washington Carver and her brother, Vernon Odom, Sr., was a prominent civil rights leader. Grammy and my now-deceased grandfather made a home for their two boys in Cleveland, Ohio. Grammy is the American Dream. When President Obama remarked about her (and my niece’s) beauty in his speech—in that moment, she was “America.”
President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and everyone treated her with such reverence. His presidency has validated everything for which Grammy has lived. He is her president. He is my president. He is our president.
Half of our family (the D.C. contingent) was there—and my daughter Sekai and my son David Jabari ‘DJ’ were all able to bask in the glory of that day when President Obama invited us onto the stage. People have asked questions about the encounter, ranging from how tall he and the First Lady are, to how they smelled. I’m sure the answers are tall and pleasant, respectively, but I was pretty much in shock, and don’t remember those things.
What I do remember is that they were majestic. Obama’s physical presence was powerful but warm. Both he and the First Lady have a genuine aura and embrace, and with effortless smiles. While I know we’re here to talk about him, please know that Michelle Obama has been just as impactful. Their physical beauty coupled with their educational backgrounds and diplomatic nature is stellar, unassailable really.
Meeting President Obama in that moment was a blessing and an honor. I first saw him, in person, at my church in 2009. We were clearly instructed to keep our seats during the customary greeting of visitors, but we couldn’t help ourselves. The entire congregation sprang to our collective feet to try to get a handshake, hug or a high five (I’m sure he waved at me). We were so proud. He is a culmination of the virtuous dreams on which America was built. His historic presidency has meant so much. My children know that nothing is impossible. He has handled his presidency with steadfastness and grace.
I look back on that historic Tuesday in November 2008 with fond memories. Grammy is now wheelchair bound, and Obama’s term is coming to an end. Yet, Obama also represents hope and truth, both in the virtues themselves, and also in America. His presidency should remind us that our common thread, as humans, is good.
Rukiya Bonner (seen in the above photos in green) is a lawyer and former children’s magician. She is currently enrolled in Shonda Rhimes’ MasterClass.