“Hell Yes, I Remember That Moment”

In 2008, hundreds of thousands gathered in Chicago’s Grant Park for Barack Obama’s victory speech. Here’s how a few of them felt about Obama then, and feel about America today.

On election night 2008, Barack Obama stood in front of an adoring crowd in Chicago’s Grant Park, victorious. America has just elected its first black president, and the more than 200,000 people in attendance chanted, “Yes We Can!” like they really meant it. Now, eight years later, Obama returns to Chicago for his farewell speech Tuesday night. Slate caught up with a few people who were there in ’08 to see how they are feeling today about their president and their country. These interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Angela & Jasmin
Angela Walton and her daughter Jasmin Williams, 13, react as CNN projects Vermont for Obama on election night in Grant Park on Nov. 4, 2008, in Chicago.

Carol Guzy/Washington Post/Getty Images

Do you remember the moment you knew that Obama was going to win?

Jasmin Williams, then 13, now 21: Hell yes, I remember that moment. Everybody just started screaming. We immediately just stood up and we were overwhelmed, and I think my mom started crying! It was such a big event in my life and I made a point at 13 to postmark that. [Obama’s] whole “keep hope alive” is just a motto that I live by. I also use his phrase “Fired up and ready to go” in my daily life, literally in my daily life. Anytime, I’m fired up and ready to go, that’s something I’m going to say.

Angela Walton, then 48, now 56: It just meant a lot for our community, for our race. And the fact that there was so much unity, even among other groups of people … it’s that everybody was represented out there. You could see that on the television, but when we were down at Grant Park, it was like, “Oh my god, there can actually be unity in this country.”

How do you feel about Obama and the country today?

Walton: I think that before it’s over we’re going to see a lot of things that [President Obama] prevented, that he aided in just [keeping from] falling apart. I think that we’re beginning to kind of see some of those things now. I’m very concerned about the state of our nation and the incoming leadership. I just have to believe that we have people in place in this country, the laws that are in place, what we stand for, I just have to believe that it will bend towards justice.

Maybe we have been a little complacent. But I think that we won’t have the choice to be that anymore. We won’t have the privilege of that anymore. … A lot of the times we’re talking about racism, and sometimes it is. But I think that it’s becoming a human issue for me now. It’s about humanity, it’s about fairness, it’s about equality across the board on so many levels, it’s not just a race issue. It’s a human issue now.

Williams Family, 2008
Angela Walton, Jasmin Williams, and Timothy Williams in Grant Park on election night 2008.

Michal Czerwonka/Getty Images

Do you remember what was going through your head when that photo was taken?

Timothy Williams, then 43, now 51: I started talking to my daughter. Just all through the night I remember telling her things that had transpired throughout my life and how my father influenced me and coming from being born in the ’60s and coming from the time frame when a lot of women could not vote. Throughout the course of the night she was just asking me questions periodically here and there and I would answer them and every now, and then they would holler out a state where he had the majority of the vote and that he’d win, or a state that he may have actually lost. … It was a very, very important night that I hold very dear to my heart because it was the day that I was educating my daughter as well as witnessing history in the making.

How has your life changed, for better and worse, in the past eight years?

Timothy: I actually got a job within the VA within the first six months of him being office, which turned my life around. It affected my daughter because I was able to send my daughter to a better school. In all actuality, I sent my daughter to the school that Michelle Obama went to. A lot of my family members that did not have jobs or that were unemployed or that were having problems medically, it covered them medically.

Walton: I did go through a period where I was unemployed because of some health challenges, and I was grateful for about six months I was able to take part in the Affordable Care Act—I was grateful for that. Seriously, it made me feel human, even though I was going through a bad patch. It didn’t dehumanize me.

What do you think Obama’s legacy will be?

Walton: I think he leaves a huge legacy, a huge legacy. With regards to them trying to undo his legacy? No, because I think that truth stands. I don’t think you can undo someone’s legacy. People have temporary brain farts, but truth stands. Like they say, “Truth crushed to the earth will rise again.”

Alexa Gonazles
Alexa Gonzales reacts to early exit polls in Grant Park on election night 2008.

Michal Czerwonka/Getty Images

Could you describe for me how you were feeling in that photo?

Alexa Gonzales, then 18, now 27: It was absolutely wild; there were so many emotions. There was a woman right next to me I’ll never forget. She was an older black woman, and she was all decked out in Obama stuff. All decked out, like she had stuff on her jean jacket, she had pins, she had photos on her. It was pretty cool, I’m not gonna lie. It was kind of surreal because the polls were fluctuating so much. And you know like when it’s a big crowd, you feel the emotion, you feel the hype. You feel like how everyone was so excited and how everyone was so hopeful. I was so young at the time. I was like fresh—fresh into college, fresh outta high school. At the time for a black man to be elected, it was huge. I just remember being like—holy cow, this is history. And I remember everyone was saying that around us too, like: “Dude this is history. This is gonna be huge.”

How do you feel about Obama today?

[Long pause.] I think at the time, now looking back at it, I think we awarded him a bit prematurely. Like we had such high hopes for him prematurely. And then right when he got into office, like everyone was like, “This is it man. It’s the change, it’s the change. It’s gonna happen, everything’s gonna be different.” And I think that kind of set it up just a tiny bit for—not disappointment, but just kind of like, ehhhh. It was like mediocre. I’m actually, I’m happy with what he did. For him to come from Chicago, there was a lot of city pride. There was a lot of, That’s awesome, he represents Chicago, and he’s a black man. What he represented was great. Because he was a picture perfect president. But I think overall, he was like a B-minus. I woulda hoped that he would’ve made the big-ass changes that we were hoping for and the big impact that we all thought was gonna happen. But he definitely didn’t fail me. I still respect the guy. I still like what he did. I still like the fact that he produced more jobs. I still like what he stood for and what he still stands for. His wife is awesome. They appeal to my group, to me. It was a presidency that I could be like, Hey, he’s funny, he’s on social media, he has a sense of humor. I’m still very proud of what he did and what he stood for.

Would you say you feel differently about the country now than you did in 2008?

As far as this recent election, I think that it’s crazy. I’ve kind of lost my faith in politics. I’ve kind of lost hope as far as politics. I want to be clear, I would never want Trump to fail. Because, like, wanting him to fail is like wanting all of us to fail. I mean all of us are on the same boat as him, all of us are on the same plane as him. So I’d never want him to fail. I’m going to pray and hope he does what’s right and what’s good for middle-class Americans and for minorities. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t. I’ll just say that. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s, like, a big letdown.

Politics does not define the U.S., I don’t think. Not the people at least. That election was pretty crazy, but I’d like to think—I would like to hope that the American people are not all like that. I feel like—we’re all right.

How has your life changed since 2008, for better or worse?

Um, honestly—I’m way more racially aware. My first year of college I took intercultural communication. It was a class where we learned about other cultures, and understanding that we’re not always gonna mesh, but there has to be some sort of even playing ground for any culture to be successful. You have to at least acknowledge differences. You don’t have to exactly celebrate it if you don’t want, but you do have to acknowledge differences and understand. So I guess I feel like I’m more racially aware, because I see things going like—if the opportunity comes up where they can turn it into race, I feel like they’ll take it. They’ll turn it into a racial issue. I don’t want to blame President Barack Obama’s presidency for that, but I mean, it definitely influenced it, especially, like, within the past few years.

I’m in Virginia. You know what I mean. A lot of my friends, they’re conservative, and they’re from the country, they’re from small towns. And they never really had to deal with race. Or weren’t really aware of race until recently, so when they do say things, I naturally perk up. I’m like, Hey, you know I’m Asian right? I’m a person of color. But that doesn’t seem to affect them.

Keisha Dyson
Keisha Dyson, left, weeps alongside her friend Jenna Elmore in Grant Park in Chicago in 2008 as it is announced that Barack Obama will be president.

Carol Guzy/Washington Post/Getty Images

The expression on your face looks like pure joy.

Keisha Dyson, then 33, now 41*: Absolutely. I felt euphoria. I felt hope. Obama’s election was an unprecedented victory. It was a blow against 400 years of slavery, legal segregation, and institutional racism. And so, I was standing in a crowded Grant Park next to Jenna Elmore—she’s my childhood best friend—and thousands of other people who were watching the returns come in, and I stood there with tears rolling down my cheeks. Because I could imagine my foremothers and my forefathers just leaning, literally leaning through the clouds in heaven, watching this moment in time that they had prayed for in the cornfields, and in the cotton fields.

Do you feel any differently today about Obama?

I don’t feel different. You know, I’m a black woman, a black mother of two sons. I have a son that’s 25 years old, his name’s Caleb. And I have a son who’s 7 years old, Gabriel. And maybe I should qualify that. I am the single mother of two black sons. And so, from my social construct, here is a man who represents all the possibility of what black men could be. And he expanded and broadened that definition. And throughout his presidency, he has been as—certainly as, and it would be difficult to argue that he has not been more honorable than most presidents. So that, for me—I don’t feel different. As a matter of fact I feel more proud of who he is.

Politically, there were several things that happened for me that shifted my own personal belief systems. The way that America changed around same-sex marriage and the broadening of our definition of the terms of marriage, and our understanding of same-sex marriage as a civil right. I watched people who I love—who felt very strongly about the definition of marriage being something that was only between a man and a woman—I watched the definition of that shift and the way that people change. And that changed me. I am saddened by the racial divides and tensions that emerged because of his leadership. I don’t know that, maybe it’s not because of his leadership, but because of his role as leader. And what he represented. But I am more proud today than I was in that moment in Grant Park.

Do you remember the actual moment that you knew he was going to win?

I’m assuming that the photographer must have just been standing there. Because I believe it was that moment. I also remember walking away from the park after it was over, and this feeling. It was incredibly surreal. There were thousands of people who were at Grant Park, but it was quiet. I walked past a few celebrities, but there was no, like, celebrity stalking. There weren’t people that were trying to run up to get their autographs. Everyone just kind of walked out of the park in this daze. I don’t remember it being loud. It wasn’t, like, a loud, celebratory kind of filtering out into the streets. It was surreal. It was quiet. It was—what happened? You know? We were all still trying to process what we had just experienced.

Do you think differently about this country than you did that night?

I do. It is because of what we learned during the last election. And what we learned throughout Barack Obama’s presidency. I thought, very naïvely—and I even feel somewhat ashamed saying this—that racism was something that eventually would go away. And I think that we learned throughout the presidency of Barack Obama and with the election of President-elect Donald Trump that racism is very much alive and well. And that—that makes me sad. It’s really disappointing. Because I thought that what we’d see is that, if everyone had the opportunity to have quality education, quality health care, and some of the other basic human needs to survive in this country, that the country would be better off. Not just individuals, not just individual ethnic groups, but the country would be a better place. And I thought that’s what we were, that as Americans that’s what we all hoped for for one another. And, you know I mean, I know it’s a lot more complex than the way that I’m talking about it now, but what emerged was more divisiveness than unity. And I know that that’s not what President Obama had hoped for.

Do you consider Obama’s presidency a success?

Of course. I’m not sure that he succeeded in what he wanted to succeed at. I think that he exposed something that I think we really didn’t know existed. Again, at the beginning of his presidency I would have said that racism was really—and this was at the start of his presidency—I would have said racism is really on its way out the door. I had not directly experienced, up to that point—surely, I can assure you I must have experienced some covert racism, as being a part of the system where institutional racism exists. But you know, the kind of in-your-face, hateful racism that has exposed itself over the past eight years, I had not seen. It’s just brazen and bold, and it does not lack the kind of shame that it deserves. And I don’t think that he thought his presence would expose that. But it did. I just don’t think that he thought that his presence would threaten, you know, white identity. But it did, and what saddens me is that I think what he had hoped his presence would garner was unity, the opportunity to see that there’s something here in this country for everyone. And instead for some reason it isolated him, and threatened, and brought on this new harsh and hateful spirit that is just … I mean, I keep using the word sad. That’s the only way I can define it.

I sat on a plane not long after the election next to a man who was so—I felt like he was so happy to sit next to a black woman so that he could say a lot of really mean things. And I think that he thought that, you know, that I would have a very defensive posture. And I really spoke to him from a place of humanity. I said look, you know, I want what you want. And he was happy to use language, like calling Michael Brown a thug, a black thug. And you know, I mean, he wanted to use inflammatory language that would upset me, that would cause me to posture politically, and I wasn’t taking the bait. But prior to that—and I don’t, in my professional life, I flew a lot at the beginning of my career—people were never comfortable getting into political conversation like that. You didn’t want to get people upset. And you know, I’m sure you’ve heard plenty of post-Trump stories that fit that bill. But I was surprised. I did not expect for it to happen so soon, and for someone to be so comfortable to be using the kind of language that he was using, but he was. And that’s the consequence, I think—an accidental consequence of this president, and a sad one.

But can I tell you one more thing? Back in November, we were so hoping for a Hillary win, of course. So my son and I, my younger boy and I got a Lego set, and we built the White House, and we got our little female figure, and we put her on there. Of course that didn’t happen. And I had also scheduled a trip for us to go to visit the White House. So Gabe got the amazing chance to tour the White House. He didn’t get the chance to bump into the president. But this was all in the spirit. I mean, I wanted him to see the Obama White House before Obama left. That to me was—it was so important for me to have him see. That was on Nov. 12, right after the election. I’m not sure that there’s any other president that it would have been important for my child to walk through the halls of the White House and to see. Not that touring the White House is not important, but that the presence of this president made it feel like it was possible for my son to also do that. And then from the position of my own story. You know, in my Facebook post is something like, true story, a single mother, the son of a single mom became the president. So this is someone from my position, and from my son’s position. It’s someone who walked in our shoes, and was able to ascend to become president.

*Correction, Jan. 10, 2017: This post originally misstated Keisha Dyson’s age in November 2008. She was 33, not 34. (Return.)