Portrait

Corresponding with the President. By Maxine Beneba Clarke.

Emails from the Obamas

The youngish black man stands behind the podium, unwrinkled mahogany baby-face looking out at the enormous crowd. For all his height and presence, he still somehow looks like a college junior in his older brother’s big-shouldered suit. Even the silver tie seems just a little too wide. The effect is genuine hopefulness, approachability, earnest aspiration, audacious hope.

“On no other country on earth is my story even possible.” The orator is talking about his Kenyan father; his mother’s family, who settled in Kansas. “E plur-i-bus u-num,” he says slowly, enunciating his words in a melodic Luther-Kingesque baritone. He pinches the thumb and forefinger of his right hand together, jabs the formation into the air, to emphasise each syllable. “Out of many – one,” he translates the Latin phrase on the Great Seal of the United States of America.

History, it’s humming through him. This man’s brewing something: some magnetic, contagious, powerful pull. I can feel it even through the screen, even from here in my lounge room, 15,000 kilometres away. It’s 2004. By the end of this speech, the whole world will know his name. I enter Barack Obama into my search engine; locate an email address. “Barack” responds almost immediately: his bold-print name heading a message at the top of my inbox the next morning.

 

Three years later, the hundred-thousands-strong crowd wave their placards madly. They sob openly in a rippling ecstasy of red, white and blue. The crowd lift their shiny faces to the sky in a rapture of thanks and disbelief. “Oh! Bah! Mah! Oh! Bah! Mah! Oh! Bah! Mah!” There’s a slight pause in the thunderous mantra. All heads turn toward the movement at the back of the stage. The new president-elect of the USA, the first black president-to-be, is approaching.

My phone vibrates. I tear my eyes away from the live broadcast on my television, lean forward across my coffee table, swipe to access the email. Dear Maxine. Barack has always had this strange thing about addressing me by name. I’m about to head to Grant Park to talk to everyone gathered there, but I wanted to write to you first. We just made history … I’ll be in touch soon about what comes next. But I want to be very clear about one thing. All of this happened because of you, Maxine. That’s the thing I’ve come to respect about Barack over the past few years of emails – his thoughtfulness, thankfulness and generosity – even at times like this.

Several moments after he’s emailed me, Barack materialises on stage, flanked by his immaculately dressed wife and beautiful young daughters. I highlight the email, drag it over into the brimming Emails from the Future President of the United States folder on my side-menu. I delete the word future from the folder description. I wonder if things’ll change now that Barack’s president; whether he and his wife, Michelle, will still have time to keep me in the loop.

 

Over the next few years, to my great delight, I find that I’ve become a firm friend. Maxine, every year, our family tries to come up with a fun way to wish Barack a happy birthday, Michelle explains in one of her many messages. And this August 4th, when he turns 49, I have something new in mind. I’m putting together a birthday card that I would like you to sign… Together with… me, Malia, Sasha, and Bo. It’s adorable that the first lady would also think to add the family dog to the list of signatories. We’ll wish him a happy birthday, and let him know that we’re ready to take on the year ahead alongside him.

Barack’s chatty emails talk me through the policies of his first term. He lets me know when he’s having difficulty, asks me for my opinion sometimes on legal reforms, sends a Thanksgiving message, even though he knows I’m not American. By the time he’s approaching the end of his first term as president, I know Barack like a brother. He tells me often how much he needs me. Maxine, it’s because you’ve got my back that I’m here, he says, before he goes on stage to accept the Democratic nomination for president in 2012. I can’t do this without you.

The crowd hushes. Barack looks different now than he did that first time he stood on stage eight years ago. His tie is slimmer, his jacket more closely tailored; his movements more fluid and assured. “Michelle, I love you so much,” he starts. “Malia and Sasha, we are so proud of you, and yes you do have to go to school in the morning…” The crowd laughs. They’re our girls, too. I know so much about the Obamas now: their hopes, and dreams – their flaws and triumphs. “The first time I addressed this convention in 2004, I was a younger man,” the president says, his newly razored, newly salt-and-pepper afro glinting against the stadium lights, as he scans the enormous crowd “…who spoke about hope.”

This time around, Barack talks about the challenges of his first term: war, economic crisis, ongoing difficulty pushing through reform. “Serious issues become sound bites,” he laments. “The truth gets buried under an avalanche of money and advertising. And if you’re sick of hearing me…” he pauses ever so slightly, “…er, approve this message, then believe me, so am I.” The crowd laughs, somewhat uncomfortably.

Second term in, Barack’s emails become more urgent. Maxine, I keep a to-do list in my desk. It’s ambitious, but you and I didn’t set out to do easy things Maxine, he says, talking about gun violence and the broken immigration system. Obama spills his soul on climate change: as a president, and a father, I feel a moral responsibility…

 

After almost 10 years, the emails start wearing thin. I’m about to ask the first black president of the United States of America to stop emailing me, when Michelle Obama finally comes through with the goods. Maxine, I want to meet you, and whoever you decide to bring to dinner! My faith is instantly restored. Hope to see you soon, the first lady signs off cheerily.

The email is so personable I almost miss the one-winner-only entry-by-donation link at the bottom of the page. The same donation link on all the previous emails. You don’t need to give much, they always urge. Five dollars, even, would make a difference. This movement is made up of everyday people who want change. People just like you, who believe.

 “E pluribus unum,” I say out loud to myself. “Out of many: one.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 13, 2016 as "Power of one". Subscribe here.

Maxine Beneba Clarke
is the author of The Hate Race and Foreign Soil.

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