Today is President’s Day. Tayler Lord is a publicist at UNP and voted for Barack Obama in 2012 as well as in her high school’s 2008 mock presidential election.
On Monday, February 12, the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery unveiled Barack and Michelle Obama’s official portraits and I was, in a word, shook. I was struggling to write something for Black History Month because sometimes it feels that I’ve said all that I can say in this space. But I saw these portraits and suddenly felt the need to write! It has been a bleak and uninspired year so far and these portraits helped to bring me out of that, if only for a brief moment.
The Obamas commissioned their paintings from two black artists, Barack’s by Kehinde Wiley and Michelle’s by Amy Sherald. Choosing black artists is a statement itself. The Obamas have a commitment to uplifting and celebrating the black community and commissioning these artists was the perfect way to do so. It also brings up the memory of Barack Obama walking into a locker room, shaking hands with the white people in the room and dapping with Kevin Durant. It’s a funny internet thing now (Key & Peele did a hilarious sketch about it), but I think it’s also suggestive of a trust between black people, or at least a common link shared by a traumatic history. This same kind of understanding had to have been important to establish with their portrait artists.
These portraits are a great exclamation point to the Obama era and a good middle finger to anyone who sees their differences within the office as anything but beautiful. Seeing the portraits for the first time, I thought of the last lines of Maya Angelou’s poem, “Still I Rise”:
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Barack and Michelle are the dream and the hope of the slave. These portraits show it. They’re Ivy League-educated, brilliant, powerful, and compassionate. But they’re also beautiful. This country routinely tells us that black isn’t beautiful. A quick search of minstrel shows will tell you what you need to know of the history of how offended this country was and is by the image of black people. But in these portraits, Barack and Michelle pay no mind to that. They know their beauty and they want to share it with the world and all the future generations who will see these paintings in the National Portrait Gallery.
And to give us a presidential portrait on a floral background?! It’s honestly a revelation. That might sound like an exaggeration, but it’s not. It’s revelatory to see that kind of representation of a man, a black man, a black man who held the highest office in the country for eight years. We were eight years in power, it’s true. And this is such a gorgeous and important depiction of that. Black is beautiful, powerful, and joyful. I have so much appreciation for the artists for showing us that.
The idea that this representation of our first black president will hang near forty-three other muted tone presidential portraits is an incredible thing. This is what I want in my president. Texture and color and life and stately beauty. This President’s Day, I want to celebrate President Obama’s unique dedication to beauty and art. I feel lucky that I was able to vote for Mr. Obama and did my small part to change the face of the presidency.