Up Next

A Conversation with The President

Being Barack Obama

‘Black people weren’t the only race that got him elected, so to expect him to cater solely to us is grossly unfair. But I do it anyway.’

Most Undefeated stampBarack Obama hadn’t been president for two minutes when my boss uttered six words that have stuck with me every day since Nov. 4, 2008.

“I hope he gets f—ing assassinated.”

Ruby Tuesday isn’t exactly the Madison Square Garden of political discourse. But I have never forgotten my rage sitting at the bar long after the last table left (because I didn’t want to head home for fear of missing the announcement live). The boss was watching CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, who had just announced to the entire world that Barack Hussein Obama had officially been elected the 44th president of the United States. Then she looked in my direction and said those six words — almost as if to tell me personally: “Be careful what you ask for.” B.G., my co-worker who was white and the only other person to hear the death wish, stood speechless, embarrassed. All day he had proudly worn his “Obama/Biden ’08” stickers throughout the restaurant even after our managers told him to remove them. He looked like he wanted to apologize on her behalf. But more than anything, he looked like he finally understood that despite the nation-altering change we had just witnessed, the rage that most black people live with almost daily had merit.

Even if you in a Benz, Kanye West rapped on 2004’s All Falls Down, you still a n—– in a coupe. Swap Benz for White House and coupe for slave quarters and the line still sounds the same.

I was mad. I was hurt. Later I sat in my car drifting between numb silence and uncontrollable anger. The moment was bigger than a single election. It was bigger than Barack Obama. It was a moment for my grandma’s generation who had gone from being in the stranglehold of Jim Crow to witnessing, with their own eyes, the mountaintop Martin Luther King Jr. had dreamed of when she was just slightly older than I am now. And my boss had selfishly taken that joy from me in favor of indulging in her own hatred. For as long as I live, I’ll never forgive her for that. And as flawed as the logic may be, I’m at peace with going to my grave holding that grudge. To this day, I wish I had defended Barack, Michelle, Sasha and Malia more than I did that night. What would I have said? Hell if I know. It’s probably best I was silent.

Justin Tinsley is interviewed after the conclusion of ESPN’s The Undefeated: A Conversation with The President: Sports, Race and Achievement at the Alumni-Foundation Event Center on the campus of North Carolina A&T on October 11, 2016 in Greensboro, N.C.

Justin Tinsley is interviewed after the conclusion of ESPN’s The Undefeated: A Conversation with The President: Sports, Race and Achievement at the Alumni-Foundation Event Center on the campus of North Carolina A&T on Oct. 11, in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Brent Lewis/The Undefeated

But had I had the chance to speak with Obama Wednesday afternoon in Greensboro, I would have apologized to him for not handling the situation differently. He’s been called worse, I know. He’s experienced worse, I know. But for my peace of mind, I wanted to say sorry. I still do. My boss ended up getting fired or reassigned a few weeks later, but the pain she inflicted has never left me.

I’ve written about these four men before. And I’ll write about them again. I didn’t have a lot male role models growing up. In some ways, I preferred it that way. There’s something honorable about teaching yourself how to become a man if your father won’t do it or at least, that’s what I had convinced myself. Yet despite my “convictions,” my uncles John and Morgan, my cousin Terry and, yes, Tupac Shakur were and still are my role models.

My uncle taught me strength. On the bed he would eventually die in a few weeks later from colon cancer, we had our last conversation in December 1998. The disease had zapped his strength. He was at peace with dying. It was just him and me in his hospital room. He talked. I listened. He talked to me about life, about women, about getting all I could out of life while I could. He was only 42, but beyond proud of the life he had lived. Flaws and all. He was looking death in the face with no fear. “Just be good to people and let the universe pay you back,” he told me. “I’ve done that and it’s worked for me in ways I never thought it would.” Here he was, on his deathbed, teaching me about strength. I’ve written about this conversation before, but I cry every time I do. It’s the most important moment of my life with the most important man in my life. The first man to tell me he loved me. The first man to whom I said it back. It pains me every day that I’ve lived most of my life without him.

Terry and Morgan taught and are still teaching me how to be a man. At some point, I want what they have — a wife, a nice house and beautiful kids. I already know who I want my wife to be. Life just has to work in our favor. And should she and I ever get married, I want to be to her what Terry is to my cousin and Morgan is to my aunt. When Obama said Tuesday that he would never remember any speech he gave or law he passed, but would instead remember the walks he had with his daughters, that resonated with me. I want those memories. If I don’t get them, then my time on Earth will have been wasted. Being a great father and great husband are the two most important goals in my life. Because of Terry and my Uncle Morgan, I have that blueprint.

Tupac Shakur taught me strength. He taught me that individuality is a gift from God. And he taught me that words and passion can change the world.

I unequivocally love those four men from the bottom of my heart. They aren’t flawless. Who of us is? No one — not even Obama. I’m not a political analyst; much of what I say about him is based on matriculating through the stages of everyday life than Politics 402 and so my estimation of his flaws is only my own. You see, I wanted Obama, I am admittedly selfish in thinking, to be The Black President. The real-life version of Richard Pryor’s classic 1977 skit.

I wanted him to respond more aggressively to the wave of police brutality cases. I felt, at times, he gave too much benefit of the doubt to the aggressors than the victims. I wanted to lay hands on him after his first debate with Mitt Romney in 2012. His showing was so piss-poor I can only compare it to LeBron James dropping eight points in the NBA Finals. I wanted him to do more than drink a glass of water from Flint, Michigan. I wanted him to loudly and angrily provide the same unqualified support for communities of color as he did when a massacre or disaster happened abroad. Or even recently when he said San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick should consider how his protests against the national anthem affected military families, despite the quarterback stating repeatedly his utmost respect for the men and women who sacrifice their lives for his very right to protest. There are so many times when I wanted Obama to be black America’s president. When I yelled at my television, “Yo, Barry, speak up for us, bruh! Please!”

It’s a mental tug of war I’ve battled daily. Black people weren’t the only race that got him elected, so to expect him to cater solely to our interests is grossly unfair. But I do it anyway. I love Obama enough to say he has driven me nearly crazy on more than one occasion. But I wouldn’t trade the last eight years of that family in that White House our ancestors helped build for anything.

It started off as a joke. We were preparing for the walk through of the town hall meeting on Monday afternoon on North Carolina A&T’s campus. I’d already announced; “Aye, if you need someone to play the president in the rehearsal, I’m your man.” Not thinking they’d actually consider me because, seriously, who am I? They probably had someone already pegged anyway. Until this happened.

“You got your wish. We need you to be Obama.”

Even still, I’m thinking this would be 15 minutes, in and out. I’d shake some hands, kiss some babies, make a few people laugh, massage some shoulders and go on about my day. Then they mic’d me up. Then they started recording. And then Stan Verrett asked me the first question. And then the look on Stan’s face immediately said, “Take this seriously.”

Oh, this is really happening, I thought to myself. I’m really sitting in the same seat that the leader of the free world would be sitting in the next day. I’d never compare myself to Obama. But sitting in that seat, looking into the audience, the magnitude of his office hit me. My bosses Kevin Merida and Raina Kelley were looking at me. They trusted me. And as two people who saved my life less than a year ago when I was this close to saying “F— The Undefeated,” I owed it to them to deliver. If I was going to wing it, best believe it was going to be diamond encrusted and served on grandma’s finest china — the stuff she only pulls out when “company” comes over.

For over an hour, I answered the same questions the president would answer. By the end of it, I was exhausted. I had been “the leader of the free world” for less than 75 minutes. How he’s done it for eight years is nothing short of a testament to his faith, patience and stamina. Students and camera crew approached me after it wrapped, shocked that I didn’t know the questions beforehand. Obama administration officials mimicked the astonishment. “That was beyond impressive,” they said. “We have to show the president your tape. How you just thought on your feet like that was fun to watch.”

I’m my own worst critic, so in my eyes, I was terrible. But it was a humbling feeling to hear so many people congratulate me on something I had no clue was happening until minutes before it began.

Justin Tinsley stands in for President Barack Obama while rehearsing with Stan Verrett the day before ESPN’s The Undefeated: A Conversation with The President: Sports, Race and Achievement at the Alumni-Foundation Event Center on the campus of North Carolina A&T on October 10, 2016 in Greensboro, N.C.

Justin Tinsley stands in for President Barack Obama while rehearsing with Stan Verrett the day before ESPN’s The Undefeated: A Conversation with The President: Sports, Race and Achievement at the Alumni-Foundation Event Center on the campus of North Carolina A&T on Oct. 10, in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Brent Lewis/The Undefeated

In a weird way, too, I understood what was like to walk in Obama’s shoes. His answers were far better reasoned and more nuanced, but it was yet another irreplaceable connection to a man who entered my life a decade earlier when he spoke at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial groundbreaking in Washington, D.C., in 2006.

This wasn’t shown on TV, but when he walked on stage, the standing ovation lasted at least 90 seconds, and felt like much longer. Goose bumps covered my entire body. It’s how I imagine my grandparents felt seeing Martin or Malcolm X or Muhammad Ali in the flesh. Obama wasn’t even a person at this point, but a living, breathing monument to the realization of a dream that took centuries of nightmares to realize.

I listened to him speak, but more than anything I people-watched. Some treated the event like a church service, quietly praising his every sentence with “yes!” chants. Some openly dabbed their eyes. Everyone was in awe. Everyone understood why this moment was so important, why being in that space represented history. Obama will be in office until Jan. 20, 2017. It’s not cliche to say this: The end of an era really is on our doorstep. An era that brought hope and change, even if it’s not exactly what we thought hope and change would be eight years earlier.

As he walked around the room following the conclusion of the town hall meeting, shaking hands with the front row, I shed a tear. Unless an invitation to come play Uno with him on the South Lawn appears in my mailbox, that is probably the last time I will see Obama up close and personal as my president.

I don’t take waking up tomorrow for granted. I don’t take my freedom for granted. I don’t take my loved ones for granted. And I’ve never taken Obama for granted. It’s impossible. Not when my first memory of him as commander in chief was the woman who signed my paychecks wishing for his premature violent death. It made me overprotective of him. And of Michelle. Of Sasha and Malia.

It’s OK that he wasn’t Pryor’s Black President. He never ran on a platform that said he would. I struggled with that, and a part of me always will. For years, I held unrealistic expectations of him because he represented perhaps the most unrealistic expectation for a black man. But even if those expectations didn’t always match his results, he still exceeded them. I may have questioned some of the decisions he made, but never his qualifications as president, and much more importantly his qualifications as a man, husband and father.

Love is complicated. Love is frustrating. But love is also the most fulfilling form of currency the world has ever known because it costs nothing to produce or spend. Love is also forever. I’ve got mad love for President Barack Obama. That much will never change. My uncles John and Morgan, my cousin Terry and, yes, Tupac Shakur, taught me that.

Justin Tinsley is a senior culture writer for Andscape. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single most impactful statement of his generation.