Opinion: The Beautiful Blackness of the Obamas’ Portraits

by | Feb 13, 2018 | COMMUNITY

It’s Monday morning, I am about to rush out of my house when a friend tips me off that the Obamas’ portraits are about to be revealed. I turn to CNN and wait for my whole life to be given to me. Thank you to the political gods that knew I needed a touch of the Obamas to start my week. I see Michelle walking up with painter Amy Sherald to slowly release the drape. The portrait appears to gift the world a queen- a regal image of a delta flowing up the goddess-like dress through her soft hands, violet nails, vulnerable eyes, and up to her natural crown.

The “sister-girl” bond that was instant and nurtured throughout the process was obvious in every interaction between the first lady and the portrait artist. ‘Yassss’ to black women loving on other black women! The pride on Sherald’s face was enough to set my heart on fire and jump with her, right in my living room, in excitement for such a revel. This moment blasted of the #BlackGirlMagic so many of us strive to embody daily. I listened to her words. The way she described the very deliberate choice of her artist was more than authentic, it was what black girl dreams are made of. We heard how Michelle Obama appreciated the artist’s style of using grey tones when drawing people of color, and this is what hit me the most.

For the first time, I felt as though I saw her clearly. My First Lady did not look white, but somehow Sherald was able to remove the lash wounds of American history while radiating her melanin.

Then my president and Virginia Museum of Fine Arts alum, renowned artist Kehinde Wiley walked up and decided to blow our minds.

When I saw Michelle’s portrait, I went from emotional to excited, but when I saw my president floating in a sea of flowers, I started an unforgiving solo applause and cheered as I envisioned the future. The future of angry wypipo, becoming irrationally agitated with the amount of color that sits in one portrait, flowers of all variety and of course, President Obama’s skin which will always be a color of concern. I was hype. It felt like we, (black folks), had the power to say that we can live our best life as flamboyant and as black as we want.

Then I stopped and gazed, I watched my president speak and truly, I don’t know what he said but I’m sure they were full sentences and had relevant humor. My full attention was on the portrait. I was lost in the flowers as I looked for something. It felt as though I was searching for myself, with such a spectrum of diversity where did I fall? Unlike the normal day as a black woman, in the portrait, I had many choices to place myself in the painting. What a cool phenomenon of belonging. But I then did not feel the need to fit in. The sea of color felt so inviting I could dive in anywhere and feel as though I was part of the movement. I wanted to be included in the collective, diverse force of nature that empowered the first black man to serve as president. Inclusion in a portrait, Kehinde Wiley, creative genius.

Amy Sherald said, “My work is inspired by fantasy with a little bit of reality,” and during the portrait reveal I was back in the Obama years, a fantasy world we often miss and wish to go back to. I joke about it often, but would we have such blackity black black portraits if we weren’t living in the nightmare of 45? The intention of picking black artists, known to paint around themes dismantling stereotypes, to sit in the National Portrait Gallery is monumental.

Since we are interpreting art, let’s also interpret this political strategy as continuing a legacy of color in American Politics. Daily, even by the hour on some days, I feel that the federal government is attempting to erase my identity and therefore any policy needed to protect me. Seeing my culture, my joy, my president and first lady immortalized in the portraits, seemed to combat 45 in a way even an executive order cannot undo.

Coming from my lens, a WOC who has a lot to say about politics, I am not here for the artistic critiques, I am here for the gassing up of the political and historical strategy behind the portraits. I refuse to dignify the haters with too much of my energy forming a response, but I am protective of my first lady. I especially cannot tolerate people who are unable to accept the grey tones of Michelle Obama’s piece. The artist is known for her grey scales, therefore Michelle knew she would be grey, so just let her be ‘grey-at’.

On Black History Month, the Obamas again showed their superpower, being pioneers of spreading blackness. As black folks gain levels of influence in our community, the Obamas have charged us to pass the torch so that we may all stand in our light as creatives, thinkers, and potential change-agents. As a community of diverse people, we must recognize our roles as allies and offer space to spread authentic black influence like the Obamas did with Wiley and Sherald, even outside of the month of February. Black American History being told through the lens of black eyes can provide a safe pathway for us all towards the progressive movement. The portraits’ wide-spread and long-term influence will be exponential to evolving our culture, it’s like filling up my mug with a triple shot of #melaninmagic.


Art Sponsored by Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art 


Chelsea Higgs Wise

Chelsea Higgs Wise

Chelsea Higgs Wise is a social worker and intercultural communicator who specializes in connecting underserved and misrepresented communities to policymakers to advocate against racism and misogyny. As an activist who helps evolve narratives and policies, Chelsea has been an instrumental voice in numerous campaigns and was recently highlighted on the PBS News Hour as a community change-agent. Chelsea values genuine connection, authentic relationships, and meaningful impact. Ask her about how she’s recently worked with some of the coolest people in Richmond on feminine hygiene drives, diversity education summits and leadership initiatives for young adults.

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