Report from Obamaland: The President may not be here, but his presence remains

(Mehves Konuk)


Stately and elegant, red brick with white trim, partly obscured by a row of trees, the house has nothing to set it apart from the other homes on this affluent residential block of Kenwood. Except that it is protected. In the driveway there is always a black SUV. At the end of the street, where University Avenue meets Hyde Park Boulevard, a black sedan is parked behind a long wall of waist-high concrete barriers and metal pipe fences. The blockade reaches along the street, across the sidewalks and back on the other side, enclosing half a city block in each direction. At every entrance, a blue metal sign covered with yellow and white letters declares in English and Spanish: ATTENTION: BY ENTERING THIS AREA YOU ARE CONSENTING TO A SEARCH OF YOUR PERSON AND BELONGINGS.

Barack Obama doesn’t live here anymore, but his presence does.

A few times a week I walk past that sign. I work inside the security area, teaching elementary school students in an afterschool program that rents space in the huge, Byzantine-inspired KAM Isaiah Israel temple that faces the Obama home. Every time I enter the secure area, I feel myself enter a new kind of space.

Lift the metal barrier that blocks the sidewalk, walk to the corner towards the black sedan. You become suddenly conscious of your body, feeling watched from every direction at once, even when no one is looking at you. The car door opens; a Secret Service agent steps out.
“Afternoon. Where are you headed today?”
“I’m going to work in the temple.”
“Okay. Have a good day.”

The Secret Service agents who work on the site are real people: they smile, they are gracious, they are serious but never severe, and they will play with children. They have earned the trust of the neighborhood. But they do not discuss their personal experiences, and when asked even the simplest questions about their work, the agents regretfully refer to a saying they learned in the academy: “The United States Secret Service speaks with one voice, and I am not that voice.”

The house has long been Obama’s home, but what “Obama” means has changed a lot in two years. This neighborhood once knew Barack Obama the man, and it has seen the idea of Obama, that second presence, grow up around him. Now the man is gone, but the idea is still here. It is in the name printed across our winter hats, the face emblazoned in gold on our T-shirts next to the images of Malcolm and Martin, the Obama special on local restaurant menus, and in the enthralling illustration stenciled in layers of red, white, and blue above the word HOPE that hung from every lamppost on 53rd Street for months after the election.

The idea of Obama is in more than our clothes: it is in us. Like no other figure of this generation, he has become a reference for how we understand our world–not only our politics, but our individual lives, our history, the color of our skin, and the content of our character. The South Side’s native son has become the consolidated image of American hope, and this neighborhood is proud of him. But there is also a kind of trauma in a transition so intense.

The kids I work with remember when playing next to Obama’s house was a novelty. Now they climb over the riot-guards to retrieve lost soccer balls. One 11-year-old boy remembers watching Michelle Obama teach her youngest daughter how to ride a bike in the street in front of her home. The future First Lady held the seat of the bike for her wobbling daughter while Secret Service agents stood on the sidewalk and kept a perimeter around the intimate moment. The kids have also pointed out to me the flag that now hangs from the house’s front porch. Before the campaign there was none.

In the metal barriers and the black SUVs, there is also a reminder that Obama’s presence, because he represents such hope, must also show what we fear. I asked one of my students what she thought the house was being protected from. Five years old, no front teeth, beautiful brown eyes still focused on the book in front of her, she said, “Terrorists.”

It is hard to imagine that the security around Obama’s house is part of the same process that has produced the more recognizable and comforting images of his presidency. But it is. Most people who live near the President’s house have never met him, but they have met the people who protect him. And most of us will never meet Obama the man, but we live every day with a body of words, images, beliefs, and behaviors that carry our collective hope and fear, and that, no matter where we stand in relation to it, has a presence in our lives that is as real as metal and concrete.

There is nothing different about the air on the other side of the perimeter, but I feel that air differently, and I think anyone who crosses that barrier does too, even the Secret Service agents whose one voice will never say so. The air inside that barrier is hopeful and anxious, reassuring and deeply alienating. Walking around that barrier I have the hugely stupid urge to start sprinting across the lawn, or to do somersaults, to do anything at all to break the heavy normality enforced in that space. But I don’t. When I cross the barrier and step into that sacred, secured space, I can tell myself that the house through the trees on the left is just an empty brick building, that the security is a show, a formality. But it doesn’t matter what I tell myself. Inside that area there is a presence speaking that is louder than I am. One voice is speaking, and I am not that voice.