Consider the context before coming for Michelle Obama’s portrait

On Monday, the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery added two new, history making pieces. Against the backdrop of Black History Month, the Gallery unveiled the official portraits of the forty-fourth President of the United States, Barack Obama, and his wife, Michelle Obama. Commissioned by the Portrait Gallery, New York-based artist Kehinde Wiley and Baltimore-based portrait artist Amy Sherald were chosen by the former POTUS and FLOTUS to portray them.  Wiley , well known for his large-scale portraits of African-Americans, was selected by President Obama, while Sherald, an artist who takes a conceptual approach to her work (rather than a photorealistic one), was selected by Michelle Obama.


Image of former President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle Obama taking center stage at the unveiling of their official portraits. Barack Obama on the left, is flanked by his photo. Michelle Obama, holding her husbands hand, is flanked by her portrait. In front of them stand dozens of reporters.
A quick look at previous presidential portraits makes it apparent that the Obamas’ portraits (which represent a dramatic break from tradition. That makes sense thematically, given that their time in the White House was a break from the tradition of old white men and their wives inhabiting the Oval Office.

Much ink has been spilled discussing and critiquing the portraits. From the color palette Amy Sherald chose for Michelle Obama to the multiple homages in Wiley’s piece to significance of Michelle Obama’s dress (yes, there are some historical influences in the dress), critics old and new have wasted no time sharing their thoughts on the portraits.  As with their eight years in the White House, Michelle and Barack Obama are once again the focus of intense scrutiny. Not all of these critiques will be equal (nor reasonable or rational). Some are likely to be insightful, even profound. Other still, are  almost certain to be racist drivel. But it’s another category of criticism that I’m concerned with: the people who won’t stay in their lane.

A phrase that has grown in prominence in recent years, “stay in your lane” has long been a phrase in the English language (though it has typically been a driving reference). These days, especially in social justice circles, the term has taken on a separate, but thematically related meaning. To understand the phrase, consider the following examples:

A: you are a cisgender, heterosexual, abled Black man attending a prestigious college and living on campus with a good friend, who is similarly cisgender and abled, though his sexuality and race differ from yours in that he’s gay and white. You’re supportive of him, have met his boyfriend, have a gay pride sticker on your car, have marched in gay pride parades a few times, and generally consider yourself a supporter of the gay community. One day your gay dorm mate walks in with his BF, clearly distraught. Noticing your friend is upset, you inquire as to why. He tells you that he’s growing increasingly tired of being in the closet and really wants to tell his parents that he’s gay and introduce them to his BF, but is fearful of how they’ll react. He figures with them being Southern Baptists, that they aren’t likely to be very welcoming to him or his boyfriend, but he’s tired of living two lives. You, having watched Will & Grace many times, as well as some Sex & the City and Queer as Folk, tell your friend that his best bet is to just come out to his parents, bc everything works out in the end. And really, he tells you, they’re going to accept him bc parents just do that. BF chimes in and tells you you’re not helping. He says that not being gay means you lack an understanding of the realities of what gay people go through or the many coping mechanisms gay people have for dealing with a queerantagonistic society, so you’re not an authentic voice on how gays should deal with issues like coming out of the closet. In a hostile tone, he tells you you’re better served being quiet and staying in your lane.

B: you’re the emotionally frustrated gay man in the above example. Your best friend is a white woman, a feminist who is a fierce advocate of a host of social justice issues who long ago demonstrated the ability and willingness to view such issues through an intersectional lens. The two of you have had long 2 am post club conversations on everything from centering sex workers in discussions of empowering women to how not to contribute to the erasure of transgender women from the Stonewall Uprising to the discriminatory attitudes felt by many gays and lesbians toward bisexuals. When dozens of women alleged that they were the victims of sexual assault or sexual harassment by Harvey Weinstein and Best Friend share her #MeToo story, you sat quietly and listened, as she requested. As more and more celebrities and politicians were revealed to be sexual predators, you took the [to you] bold step of altering your Facebook profile picture to read Feminist Ally. Then it happened. It began as one comment, then a few, then a veritable tidal wave. Many of your women and femme friends make posts expressing anger or even hostility to men. Some have made “troubling” remarks about their wish to harm men. One morning after waking up to ‘Fuck Men’ on a FB post, you
leave a lengthy comment chastising your friend and unhelpfully telling her how best to respond to the wave of allegations, which for many, have served to remind them of their assault.  Your comment goes over about as well as can be expected, which is to say, not at all.  continues to be criticized and soon you are taking up the conversation bc you centered your thoughts where you should have remained silent. You stepped out of your lane
into oncoming traffic and were lambasted for it.

C: You’re the cishet white woman above, and you’ve just seen the portraits of the former FLOTUS and POTUS. Backdrop of Barack Obama’s portrait interests you, as do his face and hands. You note his position relative to the chair he sits in and think “this is growing on me”. Your thoughts drift to children wandering through the Hall of Portraits and casting theireyes upon the portrait of the 44 President of the United States. You wonder what thoughts might erupt in their minds. Will they see the thoughtfulness of his face? Will they notice the dramatic departure from the prior 43 white males? You remark on Barack Obama being in the bushes.

Before that though, your focus is on Michelle Obama. As you think about her portrait, you consider what it means to you. You’re bothered by the greyscale on her skin and her face–for some unknown reason–bother you. This portrait doesn’t convey her central place in the hopes and dreams of many, and that’s something important to you. It’s something you think is missing. Then there’s the pale blue background, the mysterious symbols that obviously mean something (but you’ve got to go check them out). You’re reminded that pictures did not fully capture Black skin until the eighties and once again you’re bothered. You’re left liking and disliking her portrait, not realizing the problematic nature of your judgement.

As your friend (and one who recognizes how much you strive to oppose racism however and wherever it manifests), something felt off about your post. As I sat there reading your Facebook status, I kept trying to put my finger on it. The light bulb clicked on once I read a critical comment of your post from a Black Woman. Her comment reminded me there is a larger social context in which your criticism exists.

Criticisms of Michelle Obama from a white person do not happen in a void. They happen in a particular social context, and one that has been informed by the past. A past which has seen attempts to “put Black women in their place” for centuries. From their intelligence to their spirit to their sexuality to their bodies, there is nothing about Black Women that has not been put through the scrutinizing ringer of the white supremacist magnifying lens. Remember in our white supremacist society, whiteness is treated as superior, with all else viewed as inferior. In addition, every other race is subject to approval and/or disapproval, with the subject being treated as if their thoughts and agency matter less than nothing. When the judging eyes of members of the self-avowed “superior race” have cast their gaze upon Black Women, one of
their goals has been to “remind her of her place”, which in their eyes is always beneath them. It’s not bad enough that Black Women were (and continue to be) deemed inferior by their so-called “betters”, but they are unable to judge in return. Even if they were able to judge, for the majority of U.S. history, they had no platform for others to hear their voices. How better to demonstrate your dominance over Black Women than to pour over the minutae of their lives, “instructing” them of what they are doing wrong and what they should do to improve their lot in life, while simultaneously denying their right to chart the course of their own lives.

Whether it is the denial of their autonomy or humanity, the demonization of their blackness, the refusal to recognize their agency, the enforcement of non-black standards of behavior or attire, or silencing their voices, attempts to keep power, liberty, and freedom out of the grasp of Black Women have been many and varied. They include, but are not limited to:
–the adultification of Black girls (often very young girls) which robs many of their youth
–the erasure of Black Women as humans with agency in many discussions about abortion in the Black community
–respectability politics
–policing their hair (which reinforces negative stereotypes about Black hair whilst simultaneously perpetuating the narrative the white hair is preferable)
–the largely successful (and unfortunate) attempt by patron saint of the GOP himself, Ronald Reagan, to cast Black women as lazy moochers who want nothing more than to stay at home, making babies and getting rich at the expense of the government (which is a proxy for wyte people)
–the loooooong established treatment of Black Women (young and old) as hypersexual beings, which is dehumanizing AF, as this treatment views them as animalistic and prone to urges that their “betters” have under control or even evolved past
–the erasure of Black Women and their needs or desires from most of the history of Feminism
–the erasure of Black Women from narratives regarding “the problem with Black youth”, which are all too often framed as the fault of absent Black fathers. The absent Black father has long been known to be both mythical and misleading, but even were it true, Black Women are perfectly capable of raising their children. As they’ve shown since Black Women first started having children.

There’s so much more out there that I could be here for some time listing more examples and would probably not run out anytime soon.

For centuries, Black Women were denied autonomy.
They were denied agency.
They were denied liberty.
They were denied freedom.
They were disempowered.
While there is hella work to be done in the fight against racism and white supremacy, the autonomy, agency, liberty, freedom, and empowerment that Black Women *do* have will not be reliquished. Actions or behavior that seek to or have the effect of “reminding Black Women of their place” will be met with the proper excoriation they deserve. So too will any actions or behavior (intended or accidental) that police the bodies, minds, spirit, or intelligence of Black Women.
As they rightly should.

Before I close, I should also note an additional context to keep in mind if you’re wyte and are considering judging Michelle Obama’s portrait. She and her husband went through nearly two dozen portfolios before deciding upon Wiley and Sherald. For reasons that are theirs, they chose these two artists, with full knowledge of their style and artistic approach. It seems incredibly wrong to me for a white person to center their opinion about something so intimate. So personal. To do so decenters the Obamas in their own narrative, saying in effect “my will supplants yours”. All that does is reinforce white supremacist narratives that have run rampant through this country since it was founded. White anti-racist advocates should obviously not seek to perpetuate such narratives and when they do (it is an inevitable consequence of living in this society), they should take criticisms to heart, apologize for the harm they’ve done, vow to not do so again, and follow through on that.

That, incidentally, is the path my friend has taken.

Consider the context before coming for Michelle Obama’s portrait
Damien Marie AtHope: Axiological Atheist, Anti-theist, Anti-religionist, Secular Humanist. Rationalist, Writer, Artist, Poet, Philosopher, Advocate, and Activist

3 thoughts on “Consider the context before coming for Michelle Obama’s portrait

  1. 1

    The weird thing to me about these arguments is that it is literally all about why it is not okay to have an opinion about a piece of art, unless you look the right way to do so.

    And maybe that’s correct, in this case?

    But it’s still that. Which IMO really does create a chilling effect, and it opens huge cans of worms like – can a piece of art no longer be expected to stand on its own merits now? Is “Death of the Author” rendered invalid, or is it only valid when applied to works of a privileged group? Should I now expect to be able to apply the same ‘stay in your lane’ arguments when cis people inevitably have opinions about art I have made?

    Or is it only these specific portraits – whose historical and contextual significance is undeniable – that are rendered sacrosanct from critique as art per se art because of that significance?

    Most of your examples above made much clearer sense to me, because they were about commentary on things that are not a matter of opinion at all – the specific trials and experiences of various marginalized groups, which people were commenting on without information. But is there not a huge difference between telling people your opinion on how they should live their lives, vs. your aesthetic opinion on a piece of published art?

    In short, I understand and endorse ‘stay in your lane’, but this particular boundary seems dangerous to me. I do not understand. I want to.

    But according to the severe attacking I got elsewhere, apparently even asking this brands me the Enemy. That can’t possibly be okay, can it?

    PS: Please note that I have not expressed any opinion of the portraits above.

  2. 2

    I don’t think it’s a case of not being able to have an opinion about a piece of art, so much as sharing it in certain spaces. In this specific case, the art is part of Black culture, so for people who aren’t Black (especially white people), I think it best to find a different venue to share those thoughts.

    On this piece, I tend to think that it is informed on so many levels by the experiences and history and lives of Black USAmericans that non-Black folks, especially white people, are really only going to have surface appreciation of Michelle Obama’s piece. Without that connection, criticism of the piece is going to lack a good degree of depth.

    As for the attacking you, I can’t speak for others, but unless you said something racist about the piece, I can’t conceive of you being The Enemy.

  3. 3

    Okay, but… what does “different venue” mean in this case? The incident I mentioned happened on Facebook, in a public thread. While it hasn’t happened to me, I have also seen broadly similar things happen on Twitter, in which someone posts a thing and then gets dogpiled for it. The examples of this latter thing I have seen were generally much more clearly justified, like public figures saying something obviously – even overtly – harmful, but the fact is that any public forum results in a swarm of attack whenever someone ‘steps out of line’, and apparently having an opinion on the Obama portraits while not being a Black American is now treated as this.

    So, hence: What would an okay venue be? Is it here defined as “anywhere the intended audience can’t hear you”, which appears pretty problematic as a concept? Just whispered to one’s friends in person? That puts an art critique on the very same footing as overt racism or queer-baiting – driven underground, where it deserves to be.

    (No, I did not say something overtly racist. Shallow, perhaps. When I responded to getting called out by deleting it and apologizing, that was taken as further evidence of ‘white guilt’ and proof of malfeasance. Fun.)

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