Don't use "images of a presidency" to further divide the nation

We can’t have the end of a presidency without the usual round of retrospectives, fond (or not so fond) farewells and the search for what it all means. There are countless such thought pieces making the rounds about Barack Obama already, but one of them from Eugene Robinson at the Washington Post caught my attention this week. Rather than focusing on the policies and political legacy of the President, Robinson chooses to examine the Obama family and what the countless images of their lives in the White House should mean to us all.

In particular he focuses on Obama’s farewell speech and the moment when he thanked his wife and children. The author swells on how we’ve watched the Obama girls grow up before our eyes even as we saw the originally youthful president change, with his hair becoming gray and lines being carved into his face. Robinson then steps away from the normal scenes we observe with all First Families and points out why this portrait is special.

We’ve seen it all before — except that we’ve never seen an African American family in these roles. Images of the Obamas performing the duties of the first family are indelible, and I believe they will be one of the administration’s most important and lasting legacies.

Visuals are uniquely powerful. They rearrange and reorient our thinking in ways that are difficult to describe or even comprehend. They penetrate to our deepest levels of consciousness without being attenuated by the filter of language; they retain their specificity, their emotional sharp edges. They can make us laugh, cry, rage and weep without us quite knowing why.

For eight years we have had the privilege of seeing a black family live in the White House. I still find that hard to believe.

What Robinson is describing is, by his own admission, not unique. We have indeed regularly witnessed the growth and human evolution of a family spending eight years living under the constant scrutiny of the global press. Nothing Eugene writes is untrue but, as he himself says, we’ve seen it before. The presidency changes the office holder, almost always rapidly aging them before our eyes. It happened to Carter, Clinton, and both Bushes. There were even some changes in Reagan, though he was already pretty well “seasoned” before arriving and took care to manicure his image. So what’s the problem here?

Saying that we’ve “never seen an African American family in these roles” is the same as saying we’ve never seen an Hispanic family or a Jewish family or, for that matter, an Alaskan family. And if we actually want to move any closer to a truly equal society which goes beyond racism, sexism and every other -ism on the spectrum we should be able to simply say that they were “a family” living ordinary lives under extraordinary circumstances.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable (and frankly, sad) things about seeing a black family in the White House is the fact that so many people still find it “remarkable” at all. When Barack Obama was first elected, some of us foolishly believed that it might indeed signal the beginning of the end of a large part of the racial divide in this country. With an African American in the Oval Office it should have been definitively proven that anyone, regardless of their skin color, religion or other demographic tags, can truly rise as high in America as their talents and ambition will take them. Anyone really can grow up to be president and the leader of the free world.

Sadly, it didn’t work out that way, but it really should have. There wasn’t all that much different about this First Family than those who came before. The family’s days were filled with the little vignettes which describe most of our lives. The arrival of a new puppy, concerns over clothes and class schedules and the usual minutia which fills the lives of families everywhere played out before our eyes. Even when Barack Obama gave that farewell speech, a new story broke out over the fact that one of his daughters was missing. The reason behind it turned out to be nothing to do with political intrigue or tragedy. The young lady was simply staying home to study for a test at school the next day. What could be more normal and colorblind than that?

Sadly, we’re going to go through the same thing when the first woman is elected president. (And that day is coming… just not as soon as Hillary Clinton would have liked.) And I suppose it will happen for every other demographic “milestone” we pass. There are, no doubt, some divides left in our nation but they are nowhere near as large as the verbal and media monuments we build to them every day. Our fascination with what divides us may be one of the biggest obstacles left to eventually overcoming those divisions.