In meetings with young black men, Obama tries to leave a mark
The Washington Post
Zachary A. Goldfarb, Staff Writer
CHICAGO – Kerron Turner sat with more than a dozen other teenagers in a classroom at Hyde Park Academy High School on this city’s troubled South Side, nervously settling in for an unusual meeting with the president of the United States.
They told their stories: Turner worried about the gangs he passes on his way home from school. Robert Scates had dropped out of high school and was working to catch up in time to graduate. Lazarus Daniels feared what would happen to his anger if he couldn’t play football anymore.
Eventually, it was President Obama’s turn to check in — to say how he was feeling emotionally, physically, intellectually and spiritually.
Obama’s quiet visit a year ago to the “Becoming a Man” program for inner-city youth in Chicago, along with a follow-up meeting several months later, would test whether Obama could transform the symbolism of his presidency into something more personal, one young man at a time. The meetings left a mark on the president, who has used them as motivation for a forthcoming White House initiative on young men of color that he promised to launch in this year’s State of the Union address.
Back in Room 208 of Hyde Park Academy that winter afternoon, Obama told the group he tries to exercise every day but was feeling the aches of a 51-year-old. Emotionally, he was always thinking about his daughters, and he said he feels intellectually challenged all the time. Spiritually, he said, he prays every night.
Then Obama was asked to tell his story: How did a black man become president? He talked about his anger as a young man growing up without a father in the picture. When he was a teen in high school, he partied too much, ignored school too much. He confided that he drank and smoked pot.
Daniels struggled to grasp what the president was saying. That could not be the life of the man who became a president, Daniels thought. He half-raised his hand, and asked, “Are you talking about you?”
It wasn’t a question the president was expecting. “Yeah, I’m talking about me,” Obama said. “None of this is a secret. I wrote about all of this in my book.”
Obama has recounted his meetings with the young men as among the most raw encounters of his tenure. Now, as he uses his second term to address race and the fortunes of urban youth more directly, the president’s experience with the young men, and their experience with him, offer an intimate look at the promise and limitations of his presidency.
The encounters last year showed the first African American president trying to improve the lives of young black men — a group he has sometimes been criticized for not focusing enough on. But it also revealed how the notion of a black man in the Oval Office, although a reality, remains a distant abstraction for those who might want to imagine following in his footsteps…
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