By the end of 2016, Barack Obama appeared ready to transition from president to private citizen. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Obama lamented some of the “institutional obligations” of America’s highest office and the “contraints” they imposed. Obligations that “may not always align with what I think would move the ball down the field on the issues that I care most deeply about.”
For America’s first black president and first lady, that means being black without apology, and supporting the black community without constraint. The official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama, revealed on Monday to a social media frenzy, mark the Obamas’ latest act in reclaiming that unapologetic blackness.
Choosing portraitist Kehinde Wiley and up-and-coming Baltimore-based painter Amy Sherald for their official Smithsonian portraits represents the Obamas’ renewed, public commitment to black representation—a commitment often subdued during the presidency. At a time when the US has become increasingly polarized over identity politics, the Obamas’ embracing of black empowerment is a hopeful sign for a troubled country.
The political cost of blackness
By the time he finished out his second term as president, Barack Obama—who enjoyed broad popularity at home and abroad—had established the reputation of a leader at ease with himself. No matter the setting or audience, Obama was confident in his capabilities and accomplishments, maintaining his appeal by simply being himself. But for black people in America, being yourself can trigger a host of institutionalized consequences—from implicit bias to explicit hatred. As the election of now-president Donald Trump has made clear, Obama was no exception.
Black pride has always been a delicate dance for the Obamas. Despite producing Ivy League theses and bestselling books on race, once their political life began, being black, and commenting on blackness, was a real risk. Even criticizing the wrongful arrest of a black Harvard professor plunged Obama’s approval rating 8 points amongst white Americans.
As a result, Obama’s comments on topics deemed racially sensitive, such as the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, were often sanitized. When memorializing Martin’s life, Obama’s empathy went only as far as fact. “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.” Even when his comments were relatively neutral, they were cast as “disgraceful” by Newt Gingrich and other GOP leaders. In doing so, Republicans reduced black death to anti-Democrat fodder.
Wary of “race-baiting” allegations, Obama doubled down on a narrative of unity—not provoking thought on a black or white America, but focusing on a singular America. This strategy may have satisfied Obama’s bevy of political strategists, but it agitated black leaders, including those in the Black Lives Matter movement, who rejected invitations to the White House early in 2016. One activist criticized the event as nothing more than “photo opportunity and a 90-second sound bite for the president.”
Yale Professor Elijah Anderson told the Financial Times (paywall) Obama was restricted in discussing black issues because he is black. “When Mr. Obama expressed empathy with African-Americans, some conservatives accused him of essentially being an aggrieved black nationalist.”
With his words constrained, Obama doubled down on action. His strong track record of uplifting the black community included catalyzing a decrease in black unemployment, an accomplishment Trump continually takes credit for.
And as Obama’s last year in the White House progressed, there were signs of a change in his willingness to speak up. Hip-hop artists like Kendrick Lamar, J.Cole, and Nicki Minaj visited the Oval Office (in 2011, Obama was criticized by Sarah Palin and the Daily Caller for bringing rapper Common to the White House). While there, they discussed ways to support Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, a program created to support young men of color. By teaming up with the hip-hop community—often vilified by conservatives—Obama celebrated rappers as forces for good. And following the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in 2016, Obama pulled no punches, calling out the unjust disparity in arrests between black and white people.
This was the fourth-quarter Obama. An effortlessly cool public servant, unbound to approval ratings, joyously black, seemingly expressing a renewed commitment to uplift of his people.
More silence to break
Was this fourth-quarter performance a sign of things to come, or a parting shot on his way out of political office? Apart from raising funds to reform redistricting—which has an historically outsized effect on black voters—Obama has not been outspoken on political issues (racial or otherwise) since leaving the presidency. And after an election shot through with racial tension, to many, that silence has felt deafening.
Obama’s work in the black community is far from complete. Since handing over the reigns of the country to Trump and the Republicans, Obama has concentrated much of his energy on growing his foundation, with its mission to “inspire and empower people to change their world,” and planning his presidential center in Chicago’s South Side, an almost uniformly black neighborhood.
He has also focused on My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, a core Obama Foundation program, which supports young people of color through initiatives like grants for job fairs. A video capturing its mission starts with Obama’s message to these young people: “I want you to know you matter.”
In his post-presidency work, Obama seems to be signalling that his contribution will be in validating black representation and the black community, by working for it, in it, and engaging with its members—that is, by standing with people of color.
That signaling has now been carried through for posterity to the halls of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, where a portrait of a black president and first lady, painted by black artists, will be added to a catalogue of former leaders that includes slave owners.
It’s a message that will carry far and wide, thanks to social media. #ObamaPortraits quickly became a trending topic on Twitter and Facebook when the portraits were released, exposing millions of people to the paintings. An inevitable storm of selfies from visitors to the museum will bring young black boys and girls directly into the frame. Each selfie will create a dual view of their present and newly-conceived future, bringing new meaning and power to the adage, “You can only be what you can see.”
Like all works of art, the Obamas’ portraits are best understood in the context of their painters’ collections. Both Wiley and Sherald’s artistic catalogues highlight the everyday magic of black people. Rather than painting people recognizable first for their fame, they paint our grandfathers and cousins and friends. They paint the people from our neighborhoods—reimagining them as kings and queens, and trading stereotypes for resplendence.
Therein lies an idyllic sense of democracy—one that propagates individuals over systems built on the premise of imbalanced power. This is how Barack and Michelle Obama want to be remembered: not as distant heroes, but as citizens who rock natural hair and take joy in the responsibility of jury duty. Ones who care enough to fight for change in the black community.
Wiley painted the former president sitting, but not at rest. Though more weathered than the Obama who took office in 2008, the former president remains a determined subject. With a resolute stare, Obama leans forward slightly— as if readying himself to take a stand.