They were two of the first people to arrive, drawn to Grant Park not so much by politics as by the magnetism of a moment.
They wanted to experience history at its very center — to see it and to feel it. So, as the last daylight disappeared over Chicago on Nov. 4, 2008, the two strangers moved simultaneously toward the front of the crowd.
Kelly Coleman had brought her boyfriend and a camera. Chinyere Brown had come by herself. They ended up shoulder to shoulder as the election results came in, surrounded by people who chanted, hugged and wiped away tears.
As Barack Obama began his acceptance speech, a news photographer took a picture of Coleman and Brown that would become iconic, featured in newspapers across the country: Brown clutching a flag to her chest, eyes raised; Coleman wrapped around her boyfriend, eyes closed and face content.
On that night, their hopefulness was the country's hopefulness. Their moment was the national moment.
Four years later, on the verge of another presidential election, what has happened in their lives reveals how the country has changed since that night at Grant Park. They have learned about a fragile economy and the burdens of debt, about following dreams and the enduring reality of race in America. One wrestles with self-doubt and the other with fear. Few things are as clear now as in the moment when they walked out of Grant Park, filled with possibility about where their country was going and where their own lives were headed.
Brown would go back home and hug her 87-year-old grandfather, an African American from South Carolina who had never allowed himself to believe that the country would elect a black man.
Coleman would go back to her college campus, where she planned to finish school and become a photographer, so she could fill her life with moments that felt as big and definitive as this one.
- - -
One afternoon last week, Coleman sat in a room she was renting for $230 a month in the suburbs of Columbia, Mo., with her new boyfriend. The old one hadn't worked out, like so many things hadn't worked out. She turned on her computer and opened a file of her photos from four years ago. Her boyfriend, Angad Mathur, had never seen them, and he sat down on the bed beside her. Together they began a 100-picture slide show of what she called "one of the most poignant, overwhelming nights of my life."
A photo of a crowded Grant Park backlit by the Chicago skyline. Of a middle-aged man draped in the American flag. Of people jumping, laughing, rolling in the grass.
"Wow," Mathur said.
"I was crying by this point," Coleman said. "Everybody was crying by this point."
"It seems like so long ago," he said.
"The country's different," she said. "Everything's different."
She was different. For the election in 2012, Coleman had foresworn emotion in favor of a more practical approach. While her commemorative newspapers from Grant Park yellowed in the closet, she printed out transcripts of each presidential debate and considered how the policies of Mitt Romney and Obama would affect the realities of her life. There was Obama's health-care plan, which meant she could stay under her parents' insurance. There were the incessant budget cuts, which had shuttered the state hospital where her father once worked. There was the listless economy, which had forced her back into graduate school at 24, where she had once again requested another deferment on her $30,000 in student loans.
Even though she had yet to commit to a candidate, she guessed that she would vote "along more liberal lines," she said. Her parents tended to be both more conservative and more embittered, sometimes joking that they would prefer to vote for "none of the above." Back in 2008, Coleman had teased them about their cynicism. But now she was the one saying things like: "I think hope and change was a really good advertisement." And: "Nobody from Chicago trusts politicians." And: "Do you really expect them to change anything?"
And: "At this point, the reality is I'm going to vote for the lesser of two evils."
She sometimes wondered how four years had brought her to a point of such resignation. "How did it get this bad?" she asked. But she knew the answer. It had happened gradually, with one disappointment after another.
She had graduated from Columbia College in Chicago in 2010 and applied for photography jobs, then internships, then unpaid internships. After 40 rejections in five months, she had taken the only job she could find, at a doggie day care around the corner from her apartment in Chicago that paid $10.75 an hour. She had slept on a cot at the day care and cleaned up after the dogs on Thanksgiving and Christmas. She had decided her college degree was "a worthless piece of paper," she said. She had stopped taking photos. She had sought advice about dealing with depression.
Finally, she had decided that her only option was to apply to graduate school. She got into the University of Missouri, one of the best journalism schools in the country. "Maybe they saw something in me," she thought, and that glimmer of hope — that momentary boost to her confidence — encouraged her to take out another $10,000 in loans and enroll.
And now here she was, midway through her first semester, sitting in her room with a boyfriend who lived 400 miles away in Chicago and was unemployed himself.
Even as they planned for a future together, they couldn't help but feel as if their lives were moving backward: two college graduates, one 24 and the other 23, one living back with his parents and the other back in school, with diminishing ambitions and bank accounts that continued to drop. "I have $15 left in savings now," he said, explaining why it might be a while before he could afford another visit to see Coleman in Missouri.
On this day, their best hope to stop the slide was what Mathur considered a "last resort." He was waiting for a call to confirm that he had been hired at Best Buy, on the Geek Squad doing repairs, which would pay $12.15 an hour and allow him to afford more trips to see Coleman.
The Best Buy manager had promised to call in the next few days. They sat together and waited for a call that might not come, about a job he didn't want.
- - -
The flag Chinyere Brown waved on election night was somewhere in the back of her Toyota Tacoma pickup, which was parked four years later in front of her apartment in Charlotte, N.C.
"Where is that thing?" Brown said last week, rummaging for the flag amid boxes piled in the backseat. "I hope I didn't lose it."
She climbed into the cab of the truck and drove to a new job she loves, working as the financial secretary of St. Paul Baptist Church, which replaced a job she hated, working as an audit manager for a Fortune 500 company in Chicago.
The change was part of what Brown considered the ever-upward swing of her life, a path that she was on before Obama's election and that continued after it. In some ways, her life since election night had become Grant Park writ large.
"I can only speak for myself," said Brown, 31. "But my life has been very good."
She had felt at ease with people of different backgrounds that night, and she felt that way now, driving through a Southern city that is more diverse than ever. She had felt purposeful and powerful that night, having voted for a candidate that she truly believed in, and she felt that way now working at St. Paul's, being near her mom and dad, and pursuing a path that seemed meaningful to her. She had felt the possibilities of transformation that night, and now she was living them.
Although she had been rising steadily in her corporate job back then in 2008, she had felt increasingly empty and unhappy doing it. So, in the spring of 2010, with enough money saved up to manage a transition and against the advice of friends who told her she was lucky to be employed, Brown quit. "I decided I was going to walk out on faith," she said, referring not to faith in Obama or the economy as much as to the Christian faith that has always sustained her. "I said I'm not going to let fear keep me."
She spent a year traveling the country. And then, last fall, she drove the pickup — the American flag in the rear window — back home to Charlotte, where she grew up as an A-plus student in a middle-class neighborhood with streets named Snow White and Cinderella and parents who told her that she could do anything, who gave her a Nigerian name that means "gift from God."
She found an apartment with vaulted ceilings and a balcony where she hung wind chimes. She found a church she loved. And soon after that, Brown found an accounting job there that allows her to have Fridays off to volunteer at a women's shelter.
"I don't make as much money, but I love my job," she said. "So I feel this is where I was meant to be."
And yet another thought still lingered in her mind from that night in Grant Park, a memory of what had occurred to her even amid all of the cheering and talk about a post-racial America.
"I don't think his election changed anything about racism in this country," Brown said.
In fact, sometimes — especially when she read the comments posted online in response to news stories — she wondered whether racial tensions had gotten worse.
It wasn't just what she calls the "crazy talk" that Obama, a professed Christian, was really Muslim or a socialist or not American at all. It wasn't just that she felt Obama was being held to a higher standard because he was black — the old saying that you have to be twice as good to be half as good.
What bothered her more than all of that was how, in her view, such talk had become so ordinary, so bold, such a part of the mainstream political discussion.
"It makes me think, 'Okay, something has changed here,' " Brown said, driving along on a sunny afternoon.
And that change had introduced a nagging worry in the back of her mind, one that she was struggling to understand.
- - -
The Best Buy manager finally called late that night. Would Mathur be able to work on Good Friday? "Yes," he said. And with that he had his first official job as a college graduate, as a member of the Geek Squad at a store in Skokie, Ill., working 20 hours a week.
"I feel like this is a win for us," Coleman told him. "In this economy? That's a win. Even at Best Buy."
"It's just a job," he said. He had applied for several hundred others — in computer programming, design and software development — before settling for this one.
"You could have been too prideful," Coleman said. "You could have decided it was beneath you, but you didn't. That says a lot."
"Just a job," he said again.
"I'm proud of you," she said, reaching for his hand.
"I don't want to talk about it, okay?"
"I'm sorry," she said.
Much of their year together had been spent boosting each other's self-confidence and explaining away each other's disappointments in hourly text messages and nightly talks on Skype. Their mounting debts? "Everybody is poor in America now," Coleman said. Their chronic underemployment? "This is life in the Bush-Clinton-Obama economy," Mathur said.
To create something to look forward to, they had started planning their lives together in e-mails they sent back and forth. He would start a business and make most of the money. She would travel the world to take photos. They would marry in a ceremony that honored his Hindi heritage and raise their kids the same way they had been raised — solidly middle-class, living in the Midwest. That was the American life they wanted, and the American life that felt increasingly like "a fantasy," Coleman said.
She had encouraged Mahur to take an unpaid position as a designer for an Internet start-up company, on the promise that he would be paid later. He had encouraged her to spend $4,500 on a camera with two lenses, which she had taken out a loan to buy. "A smart investment," he called it, but she wasn't so sure. Was it really smart to take on more debt in this economy? Was it smart to invest in herself?
"Am I just wasting my time and money being here?" she asked. "I feel stuck. I used to feel so sure about everything."
"You made the right choice," he said.
"Do I even have the personality to succeed?" she asked.
"Of course," he said.
"I don't have endless supplies of motivation anymore," she said. "I need a win every once in a while to maintain. I can't just keep taking hits."
She had been taking them for four years, each blow chipping away at the hopefulness of Grant Park, until sometimes it seemed to her that only the photos remained.
- - -
This was Chinyere Brown's nagging worry: that the upward trajectory of her own life as a successful African American woman was occurring in a society that in some ways resented it.
In the apartment with the vaulted ceilings, she reached for a scrapbook on a shelf. She flipped to the famous Chicago Sun-Times cover from Nov. 5, 2008, the one with Obama's face and the words "Mr. President" underneath. Then she flipped to another photo, this one of her — not the one with Kelly Coleman but one of her alone, holding the flag on election night, a photo that had run with stories in at least two newspapers.
Here she was beaming under the headline "Race Breakthrough or Logical Step?"
Here she was again under "Obama Leads Nation Across Racial Divide."
"Year by year racial tensions have eased," Brown began, reading part of the article. Then she stopped. "Okay, they are painting a kind of rosy picture here," she said, but it was the reader comments at the ends of the articles that she thought told her "what people are really thinking."
People said they wanted to "take the country back," which made her wonder, "from whom?" She came across crude racist jokes that seemed to catch on rather than be condemned. She heard politicians like Newt Gingrich call Obama "the food stamp president" and watched large white crowds cheer when he did.
"Things have changed," Brown said. "People are more vocal, and when people are more vocal, it is rational to have a little more fear."
This was how things were different now than they were four years ago in Grant Park: along with her emergent success, an emergent fear.
On that night, she had worn a "Yes We Can!" sticker on her smiling cheek and felt safe walking home to her grandfather's house. Now a pile of Obama stickers and car magnets were sitting on her desk, unused, because she worried that displaying them would make her a target in a country that was angrier and more divided.
"If it's 50-50 that someone is not an Obama supporter," Brown said, referring to the rough breakdown in North Carolina, "and if a small percentage of those might be extremely anti-Obama, I wouldn't want something on my car to draw attention to me. Maybe someone has a beer and wants to do something crazy," she said, trailing off. "That is in the back of my mind, too."
A week or so ago, she had glimpsed an article online — a report police now describe as a tragic hoax — about a Louisiana woman wearing an Obama T-shirt who had been set on fire.
"I didn't want to read it because I didn't want to get upset," Brown said. "But it did make me wonder: Do I want to wear my Obama T-shirt, or do I want to cover it up?"
Brown shut the scrapbook and got dressed for work. She got into her pickup truck, where she still could not find the flag.
"I'm thinking, 'Where is that?' " she said later, after looking for it again. "Did I leave it in Chicago?"