Chapter 1: Barack Obama
1 BARACK OBAMA
Consider the scene: a young man flanked by well-connected parents is announced as the forty-fourth president of the United States of America. Cue the crowd. The country is united, and Barack Obama’s journey to the microphone onstage fills him with reminders of how seamless—how truly easy—the quest has been. Red carpets were rolled out for him and his wife, Michelle, everywhere they went. Widely respected, he never had to deal with attacks on his character or his name. And all of his previous races for office—at the state and national levels—were met with resounding successes as well. Indeed, this night is a fitting capstone to a journey marked by victory after victory. Obama takes a deep breath, thankful that he has not had to deal with heartrending defeat and rejection, and he begins his acceptance speech. Not!
Barack Obama was indeed elected as the forty-fourth president of the United States of America, beginning his term in 2008. But his path to reach that pinnacle included far more failure and rejection than we can imagine. Case in point: In 2000, Obama attempted to be the Democratic nominee for the First District from the state of Illinois for the United States House of Representatives. This race would decide who would run for the House for the Democratic Party, and Obama was hoping he’d be the choice. Instead, he lost the race by thirty percentage points to his rival, Bobby Rush. Obama received a total of 31 percent of the votes in the election.1
Think about that. In the year 2000, running for the House of Representatives, the man who would become president
of the entire country
only eight years later received less than one-third of the support of one district in Illinois. This is after he had campaigned hard, knocked on door after door to introduce himself to people, given countless speeches, and participated in endless fundraisers.
Consider studying hard for a big test that’s coming up. It’s huge. You’ve got the date marked on your calendar. Circled. Your teacher has said repeatedly that this test counts for a lot of your final grade. So, it’s go time! You study night after night, work with friends, memorize and talk the ideas through, and practice, practice, practice (and then practice some more). The big day finally arrives. You take the test, feeling like you gave it all you had. And after your teacher tallies the results, there is a big 31%
on top of the first page, circled in bloodred marker.
You feel floored. Defeated. And, let’s be honest, kind of hopeless. You gave it your all, and what did you receive in return?
So, how do you think that made him feel? Do you now think you can imagine it?
But when a friend of his tried to re-inspire Obama by suggesting a trip to the Democratic Convention later that year, where Al Gore would be officially announced as the candidate for president, Obama agreed that maybe it was what he needed to reignite the spark.
There was just one problem: he had no money.
Okay, actually there was a second problem: no one knew who he was.
Okay, actually, to be completely honest, there was a third problem as well: he couldn’t even get into most of the convention.
After Obama’s flight landed in Los Angeles, he went to the rental car desk because he next had to drive to the convention at the Staples Center. Unfortunately, the attendant at the counter informed Obama that he would not be able to rent a car. His American Express credit card had been maxed out! He had used his last bit of available credit to buy the plane ticket to LA, but once there, it looked like he might not even be able to make it the last part of the journey to the convention center!2
Imagine a deep passion of yours—whether art or basketball or ballet—and using your last bit of energy to get to the art show or the championship game or the dance recital. You were not going to be in the show, game, or recital, but you wanted to be in the audience because you knew that passion was a part of you and what you still hoped to do in the future. But then you got turned away before you could even arrive at the site!
Obama finally convinced the sales associate at the car place to let him rent a car, and Obama finally made it to the Staples Center and the 2000 Democratic Convention. Whew! Now that he was there, people would realize that he was a truly gifted individual.
They would realize that here
was a person who could one day be president!
They would realize that they should definitely let him in to interact with the leaders of the party and the nominee for president, Al Gore. Right?
Wrong. Obama made it to LA and then to the Staples Center and the convention, but he still couldn’t get inside the actual doors. He couldn’t hear the most important speeches, and he even left before the final day, when Al Gore officially accepted the nomination and gave his acceptance speech. In an interview with David Axelrod, who would become Obama’s senior advisor during his presidential run, Obama noted, “They [gave] me the pass that basically only allows you to be in the halls. The ring around the auditorium doesn’t actually allow you to see anything.”3
Obama later wrote about the experience, “I ended up watching most of the speeches on various television screens scattered around the Staples Center.”4
With a wife and young daughter back at home in Chicago—and another baby on the way shortly—Obama had no money, no direction, and was literally standing outside the doors of the career he had passionately thought he wanted.
I ended up watching most of the speeches on various television screens scattered around the Staples Center.
So, a brief recap: Obama had lost his 2000 congressional primary race to represent Illinois in the US House of Representatives. He had earned only 31 percent of the vote. Because of the extreme effort and energy required during this fierce campaign, he had used essentially all the money he had and had maxed out his credit card as well. Then, when he attempted to attend the national convention, he wasn’t even allowed into the room. Dick Durbin, the US senator representing Illinois, commented about Obama at the 2000 convention, “I have no memory of him there. It was a disastrous trip for him.”5
FROM WEAK TO PEAK!
Even though she lost her political race for a state senate seat in Illinois, Ida B. Wells accomplished astronomical amounts while working toward justice: as a newspaper editor at the turn of the nineteenth century, Wells bravely wrote about lynching and demanded justice for victims. She also established programs for kindergartners, a women’s group, and a suffrage organization for African American women.
How did all this feel? What did it make Obama think? He shared, “I felt as if I was a third wheel in this whole thing. I ended up leaving early, and that was the stage when I was really questioning whether I should be in politics.”6
I felt as if I was a third wheel in this whole thing. I ended up leaving early, and that was the stage when I was really questioning whether I should be in politics.
The eventual forty-fourth president of the United States of America, who was elected not once but twice
to the highest office in the country, once felt like he was a third wheel. Like he didn’t belong. Think about what that means for you and me, and for your best friend, Jada. (How did I know your best friend’s name was Jada? This book involves a lot of research, so I research everything!) That means that if you or I (or, yup, your best friend, Jada) feel like a third wheel in something, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we don’t belong. And it definitely
doesn’t mean that we’ll never belong. All it means is that in one precise moment, we feel ignored.
But we are not alone! Obama felt that way, too, yet he found a way to keep moving forward. You may be standing at the doors of your own convention center right now, trying to find a way in and hearing those in power tell you, “Sorry, you don’t have the right credentials. You’re not allowed.” They may even slam the door in your face.
NOT DIMINISHED… FINISHED!
Louisa May Alcott became a sensationally successful author when her novel Little Women
was published, but it took her years of struggle and rejection before she was able to break through with this novel, which is still widely read today.
You may find yourself relegated to the hall, where you watch the action on a television set rather than in real life.
That’s part of the journey. And if that convention center is a place you know you want to be, or a place where you know
your voice needs to be heard, represented, paid attention to—then you won’t give up. You won’t politely allow those in power to tell you to back off, to go find somewhere else to frequent. No, you’ll learn, you’ll grow, you’ll keep using your voice (or creating your art, or dribbling your basketball, or doing your pirouettes), because you know that one day you’ll come back to those doors with a voice so powerful that no one will be able to ignore you anymore.
That’s exactly what Obama did. Over the years, he hadn’t just lost political races and been turned away at conventions. He had grown accustomed to being pulled from airport security lines because of the sound of his name, and he had become used to people wondering, Who is this guy? Never heard of him!
HAVE GRIT—DON’T SPLIT!
Author J. R. R. Tolkien, who would create the phenomenon Lord of the Rings trilogy, struggled with his academics at the University of Oxford until he switched into the study of languages. He also served on the front line in World War II and had to overcome his wartime trauma to eventually craft his masterpiece.
But in 2004, the day after Obama gave the keynote address for the Democratic Convention at the Fleet Center in Boston, Massachusetts, a story long in the making took a fascinating turn. One of his advisors, Robert Gibbs, shared this revealing moment about the aftermath of Obama’s rousing speech: “We got close to the Fleet Center and a group of Boston cops walked over to shake his hand, having heard the speech the night before.”7
Instead of locking Obama out, police officers charged with providing security for the convention were seeking Obama out to shake his hand. They were grateful for his message! His words had been heard; he had found his mission and his place.
Your own journey will look different from Obama’s, and the place where you feel rejected or like a third wheel may not be the exact place where you later thrive. Sometimes, as you will read in other chapters, failure and rejection help us find new passions, new opportunities, and new stories to explore. Other times, as it happened for Obama, failure and rejection help to birth resolve in our hearts, so we can eventually push open the doors before which we once found ourselves barred.
As you face closed doors and your own longing to belong, remember that this is temporary. This situation—this rejection, this failure—is not permanent. Keep moving forward, keep using your voice, keep making your art, dribbling your basketball, and turning your toes to help your body rise. Closed doors are not the end of your story, but rather, just one chapter of your journey.
The Flop Files: Ta-Nehisi Coates
Now a massively famous writer and intellectual whose work and words are cause for celebration and fierce debate, Ta-Nehisi Coates once used to wonder where his next meal was coming from.
In 2007, Coates was thirty-one years old, had never graduated from college even though he attended Howard University earlier in his life, and was trying to figure out a path forward for himself, his wife, and their son. He had wanted to be a writer—but putting food on the table as a writer wasn’t easy. Additionally, he had lost all three of his most recent jobs. In short, nothing really seemed to be working out. Coates later wrote, bluntly, “This story began, as all writing must, in failure.”8
Instead of surging toward his hopes and dreams, Coates was collecting unemployment money from the government to help get by, and because of this, he took a government-sponsored seminar. He found himself sitting in a state office building in New York City, listening to people expound upon the need to work hard and take responsibility for yourself. He was trying to do just that! His wife had a job, and he hoped that he could soon find a way to make enough to not need the government checks. But nothing was working out.
However, a year later, in 2008, his first book, The Beautiful Struggle
, was published.
A book deal!
Success! Exactly the thing Coates had been longing for!
But the publication did little to change things. Sales were low, and people didn’t seem all that interested in or excited by the book. But Coates kept writing and continued to hope that his work would take off. When The Beautiful Struggle
was rereleased in paperback, the tide slowly began to change. Readers took note, paid attention, and followed his work. It helped, too, that he began writing for the large, mainstream magazine the Atlantic
. One of his most compelling and widely circulated articles for the magazine, “The Case for Reparations,” explored his argument that America needs to make amends—in the form of money due—to descendants of those who were kidnapped, tortured, and enslaved throughout this country’s history and making.9
The piece catapulted his words and his work and soon led to the publication of another book, Between the World and Me
. Unlike his first book, which caused little stir or acknowledgment, his second sold out before it reached many bookstores! Orders flew in, and the books flew off the shelves.
Colleges began assigning it to incoming freshmen; readers and intellectuals began debating it; and soon it became part of—and started, in some cases—a national conversation about race and racism in America.
While walking the streets of New York in 2007, Coates felt a deep sense of fear, shame, and despair. These emotions did not last forever. Instead, out of failure, his story took a turn toward something that would shake a nation and stir up discussion, debate, and possibility.
But Coates wasn’t content with only intellectuals and academics debating his work. Instead, he also accepted an invitation to become a writer for new issues of the Black Panther comic books series. He is also writing a screenplay, entitled Wrong Answer
, to be directed by Ryan Coogler (read more about him in chapter 6!) and to star Michael B. Jordan.10
Coates may once have wandered in despair, but now he is creating and articulating with flair.
- 1. Ashley Alman, “Barack Obama Was a Nobody at the 2000 Democratic National Convention,” Huffington Post, December 26, 2016, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/barack-obama-2000-dnc_n_586143a3e4b0eb586486da83.
- 2. Alman, “Barack Obama Was a Nobody.”
- 3. Caroline Kenny, “Obama’s Other DNC Moment: His Credit Card Got Declined,” CNN, December 27, 2016, https://www.cnn.com/2016/12/27/politics/president-obama-axe-files-credit-card-dnc/index.html.
- 4. Jeff Zeleny, “Once a Convention Outsider, Obama Navigated a Path to the Marquee,” New York Times, August 26, 2008, https://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/27/us/politics/27obama.html.
- 5. Zeleny, “Once a Convention Outsider.”
- 6. Kenny, “Obama’s Other DNC Moment.”
- 7. Zeleny, “Once a Convention Outsider.”
- 8. Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power (New York: One World Books/Random House, 2017), 5.
- 9. Jordan Michael Smith, “The Education of Ta-Nehisi Coates,” Chronicle of Higher Education, October 2, 2017, https://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Education-of-Ta-Nehisi/241356.
- 10. Concepción de León, “Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Making of a Public Intellectual,” New York Times, September 29, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/29/books/ta-nehisi-coates-we-were-eight-years-in-power.html.