Skip to Content

raceAhead: Why The Obama Portraits Matter

The official portraits of former president Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama were unveiled yesterday at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C.

The first black First Couple have now been enshrined in history: One, the son of a voluntary African immigrant; the other, a descendant of slaves. Both now hold places of honor among slave-holding founding fathers.

It was quite a moment.

The portraits are stunning, partly because they are so different from any official portraiture that came before, but also because they offer an interpretation of two historic figures through a distinctly African American lens.

Both painters— Kehinde Wiley, for Mr. Obama’s portrait and Amy Sherald, for Mrs. Obama — are black; both have explored themes of race in their work. For both, it is the opportunity of a lifetime, but particularly for Sherald, who had not yet found the acclaim of the better-known Wiley. The heart transplant survivor brings a careful process to her work. “There has got to be something about them that only I can see,” she told The New York Times. Her portrait of Michelle Obama fits neatly into her current style, of African American subjects, painted with gray-toned skin, in colorful clothes on a flat plane. They often meet the viewer’s gaze. “They exist in a place of the past, the present and the future,” she says. “It’s like something I sense with my spirit more than my mind.”

Barack Obama’s portrait will be even more of a standout at the National Portrait Gallery, where all the presidential pictures are now assembled. (The first lady collection is still incomplete, go figure.) The former president sits in front of a backdrop of greenery and flowers, and with the exception of his traditional chair, there is no trace of Oval Office finery, flags, or patriotic ephemera.

Now This News put together a 35-second video of all the presidential portraits from Washington to Obama, to make the distinction even more clear.

Like any work of art, people will bring their own unique perspective to these paintings. But because these are not ordinary times, and these are not ordinary subjects, expect the commentary from the cheap seats to be more divisive than most.

The portraits may be stunning — but they are also beautiful. My best advice is to sit with them awhile. There’s a lot to see if you let yourself look.

I admire the statement the Obamas made by choosing Wiley and Sherald. The works show the honor, dignity, and achievement of the subjects, though in distinctly different ways. The portrayals ring just as true as those who work within the confines of a more familiar canon. Perhaps, more so.

For now, the paintings are the final, inclusive footnotes of a presidency like no other. Let’s see what comes next.

On Point

Black Panther will save us from Donald TrumpSo says James Braxton Peterson, author and the host of The Remix podcast on WHYY. He argues that the vibrant power of Black Panther has something to offer beyond black pride and entertainment. It’s an answer to the MAGA movement. “The movie, appropriately being released during Black History Month, offers a powerful counternarrative to Trumpism at a crucial moment in black American history.” He ticks through a list of reasons why, including the comic’s origins as a black power story in 1966. But today, in light of increased violence and ugly rhetoric, it’s set to inspire people around the world, “a potent reminder of black people’s great resource, our Vibranium—black film, black music, black art—black culture.”Fortune

Twitter bans Wisconsin GOP congressional candidate for posting racist image
Paul Nehlen, a candidate vying for Rep. Paul Ryan’s seat, sent shockwaves across Twitter over the weekend after he posted a doctored image of Prince Harry with his fiancée, Meghan Markle. The photo superimposed an image Cheddar Man, the recently analyzed British skeleton discovered to have had dark skin and curly hair, over Markle’s face. “Honey, does this tie make my face look pale?” joked the caption. Nehlen defended his post, saying it was to protest articles using “’science’” to ‘prove’ whites never existed.” Nehlen’s feed was filled with racist and anti-semitic commentary and continued to carry on until Twitter finally suspended his account. He also boasts of his executive positions in Fortune 500 companies on his campaign site.  
Huffington Post

The Education Department clarifies its position on LGBTQ students
Well, sort of. It’s not an official announcement, but the Education Department did tell BuzzFeed News it will not take action on any complaints filed by transgender students who are prohibited from using bathrooms that match their gender identity. According to an Education Department spokesperson, bathroom complaints are not covered under the federal civil rights law known as  Title IX, but other complaints from transgender students might be. It’s been a year since the Education Department, along with the DOJ, withdrew guidance protecting restroom access for LGBTQ students.
Buzzfeed

AG on Weinstein lawsuit: “We have never seen anything as despicable.”
In a dramatic twist, New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman filed a 39-page complaint that has interrupted a pending sale of the Weinstein Company, citing a pattern of sexual coercion that involved many company employees as either targets or accomplices. “They knew what was happening. It was flagrant, it was flamboyant, they knew how pervasive it was and not only did they fail to stop it, they enabled it and covered it up.” Schneiderman is calling upon the potential buyers, Ron Burkle and Maria Contreras-Sweet, to do more for victims, and that it was “unacceptable” for any new owner to maintain the previous management team.
The Guardian

Mayor Eric Garcetti and Ava DuVernay team up for diversity in filmmaking
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and filmmaker Ava DuVernay launched a diversity program yesterday that will provide paid internships in the film industry for young people from underserved communities. The Evolve Entertainment Fund kicks off this summer and will fund 150 internships for starters; it will also provide gap financing to filmmakers who don’t have enough money to finish their productions. DuVernay’s production company, Array, will be among those hiring interns; others include Netflix, Sundance and producers Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes. Yes, the next big director will be coming from Watts, y’all.
LA Times

The Woke Leader

The photos that changed how we saw domestic violence
In 1991, photographer Donna Ferrato published a book that would change the way the world would view intimate partner violence. It began with single incident, a photo of a real-time violent encounter between a couple she had been trailing for a different photo-essay. Horrified, she began to investigate. Living with the Enemy was the result of a years-long journey of documenting domestic violence which was widespread, largely unpunished and rarely observed. Her work languished for years, then burst into the public consciousness. Magazine cover stories, legislation and a documentary followed. “I often wondered, how could men get away with abusing women in such horrific ways?” she tells The Huffington Post. It was the age of male entitlement, the need for control. “Everyone colluded with the abuser. Blamed the woman. It was simple.” (Disturbing images and discussion.)
The Huffington Post

Are you ready for the Infocalypse?
In 2016, Aviv Ovadaya, Chief Technologist at the Center for Social Media Responsibility, stopped what he had been working on to focus on the growing issue of “fake news, ” and “an impending crisis of misinformation in a presentation he titled ‘Infocalypse.’” In a rapidly scaling world where false and polarizing information was rewarded with clicks and shares (and revenue) he felt that the very nature of truth was at risk. But now, he says, it’s worse. “We are so screwed it’s beyond what most of us can imagine.” The MIT-trained scientist is now working full time on the problem – that new technologies that can distort reality are evolving faster than we can respond to them, and where anyone could make it “appear as if anything has happened, regardless of whether or not it did.”
Buzzfeed

Algorithms are biased and we pretend they’re not
Buckle in for an excellent interview with Joy Buolamwini of the MIT Media Lab, who explains why addressing biases in predictive software should be a priority. She starts with facial recognition software, which often fails to recognize black faces. It’s calling everything into question. “[W]hat we have right now is blind faith in AI that doesn’t acknowledge how easy it is for bias to creep into the systems. And at the end of the day data reflects our history, and our history has been very biased to date.” According to Buolamwini, the first field to feel the bias may be “precision” health care. “There are biological differences that are really important to make sure we address when we’re looking at the efficacy of drugs or various treatments.”
Marketplace

Quote

If any woman is being beaten in her home, that’s an affront to all of us.
Donna Ferrato