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 forsworn 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.