I often remember, in moments when I saw Michelle Obama on television, wondering: how much is she not saying? what silences lie behind those eyes?
Look into those grey eyes, they are telling you that this image is not quite what it seems. They are telling you that grace does not disappear sunken places.
This is the portrait. This gray, muted, un-vibrant, unbothered, unseen face is the only way to be Black and woman in this White House. It is survival mechanism. Your brightest colors dare not shine through. Your sweetest flowers dare not sprout here. This is not a space for your growing. And still with quilt-like patterns strewn across your dress, you carry ancestral secrets. You plant anyway, arms covered or hidden, joy known but forbidden – how dare three happy Black women live in this White House (oh wait, it was 4, right?).
I too am seeing what I want to see. And what I want to see is the truth of America. Look into those grey eyes, they are telling you that this image is not quite what it seems. They are telling you that grace does not disappear while in sunken places.
This muted Michelle is the woman I needed to see after nights of not sleeping and days of not eating and weeks of forever functional depression because if she can be blue, then I can too. I know, we want her to be vibrant in her glory. But when can we be honest in our sorrow? There is a longing in this portrait. Someone suggested it get “unfinished.” But when did they ever let this First Lady finish? When did they let her stand in her vibrant glory?
No. This portrait is a Black American First Lady. Because she knows she will never be seen, never be saturated, never be celebrated in this America. She will barely be respected. And when she is, it will be for being black-ish, for performing Americanness. We cannot be colorful and magical and powerful here even when our male partners are allowed to flower and flourish.
This portrait is a Black American First Lady…We cannot be colorful and magical and powerful here.
Portrait photo from FASHIONISTA: Michelle Obama and artist Amy Sherald unveil Mrs. Obama’s portrait at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. on Monday. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images