Considering the Obamas Evolution in the Cultural Imagination

On a sunless morning last month, online chatter was especially restless. The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC had just unveiled new presidential portraits and reactions, on Twitter and across group texts, spilled over into a fervor. The artists Kehinde Wiley, known for his august renderings of black men that challenge conceptions of power and status, and Amy Sherald, the Baltimore painter whose work tests the volume of cultural identity, had recast Barack and Michelle Obama, respectively, in a magnitude hitherto not imagined, dared, or seen in the public eye.

It had only been a year since the Obamas left the White House, and here they were again, just as many people remembered them—attentive, unshakable, full of grace—but they had also returned as something more: as living memories. As social media has heightened our appetite for constant modification, the way we process memories has drastically transformed—continually fastened to the present and subject to alterations, often digitally—and ushered with it new rituals of remembrance.

What is even more remarkable about the moment is that the unveiling of the portraits came during an especially omnipresent time for the former First Family. Just weeks prior, Obama gave a rare, extended interview to David Letterman on his new Netflix talk show, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction. On the heels of that, WBEZ Chicago and NPR launched Making Obama, the popular six-part podcast that offers an investigative, behind-the-scenes look at the political dawn of Barack, and how the people of Chicago—reeling from the death of Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor—contributed to his landmark presidential run in 2008.

The days since have pulsed with a matching fever. This week, Michelle announced she would issue her anticipated memoir, Becoming, in November. “I hope my journey inspires readers to find the courage to become whoever they aspire to be,” she wrote in a tweet, saying the book would be about how a black girl from Chicago’s South Side "found her voice." But it was days before her announcement, when an image of the couple surfaced online, that excitement about the Obamas truly took off, announcing itself the same way a cherished family member might surprise one at a special celebration of some sort—abruptly and with jubilance, illuminating all the nostalgia of a bygone time.

Taken in 2016 at the White House Easter Egg Roll, the images captured Barack and Michelle in a kind of innocent, teenage glow—across four photobooth panes, they smile, jest, and impose their identities into the frame. The images are intimate and heart-filling, but they also work as a contextual reframing: by teasing the tension of the past against the chill of the present. We live in a memory echo. And because an expanding carousel of technologies have endowed us with the ability to furnish old experiences in novel ways—the stubborn chronology of time forces us to move forward even as we yearn for what has already passed—these images exist both then and now; they are as much a document of a time before as they are an annotation on the immediate moment, a reminder of what has been lost and erased in the interim.

That is the power of the Obamas. That even when out of sight, they continue to leverage the collective imagination of the American people like no one else. Since 2007, their lives have been documented, picked apart, debated, and tarred with incessant thirst—in newspapers and magazines, on talk shows and gossip websites. We have lived with them in surround sound. It’s astounding, really, to marvel at the thought: How they could, day in and day out, offer up their service for a country that at times did not prize them, that had for decades seeked to demolish their selfhood and the communities where their loved ones lived. In this way, what they came to represent was simple but also complex. They were a vision of a new American Dream—they were hope, and more than hope. The Obamas were of the real world, and thus within reach.

It’s astounding, really, to marvel at the thought: How they could, day in and day out, offer up their service for a country that at times did not prize them, that had for decades seeked to demolish their selfhood and the communities where their loved ones lived.

At their peak, the Obamas functioned as a reservoir of possibility for at least three generations of progressives, and remain so for communities of people who look to them for personal nourishment, even though they no longer shepherd the country’s future from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. With their ascendancy, too, they are no longer just products of American culture, but pieces of it.

Like the dreams and hopes they advocated for, the Obama archive—that is, the reserve where our collective memories of them live on—is accessible and open to all. Endlessly updating, their identities exist in books and profiles and TV interviews, as meme fodder and expertly curated Instagram accounts. A podcast like Making Obama, for example, adds to this living archive, and how the Obamas continue to anchor the cultural imagination in such a unique way.

In the fourth episode (“Wait Your Turn”), released today, former Illinois senate colleagues recount Barack’s freshman days in the legislative chamber. Lisa Madigan, who then worked alongside the future president, said there was a belief among a cohort of African American senators that he hadn’t “paid his dues” and “wasn’t black enough.” Others remembered Barack as “uppity” and “stiff.” These characterizations, rarely heard, knock against the image of polished black cool Barack would later come to signify in the public eye. Such stories augment the growing, incomplete mythology that surrounds the Obamas, which continues to bloom, even now.

I like to believe nostalgia typically returns to us through a romantic lens. When we catch sight of the Obamas in DC for a portrait unveiling or in photos on Twitter, it’s not just a reminder of what was, but of what we are yet capable of, of our abiding capacity for good in the face of dissension and discord. The Obamas' currency as symbols has sometimes outweighed their might as public servants—policies failed and promises were dashed; such is the reality of politics in Washington—and still they've firmly maintained a grip on the American imagination, because this much remains true: Hope does not easily fade into the night.

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