Monday, February 16, 2009

Skin in the game: Two sides of President’s Day

Today, the first President’s Day of the Obama administration, the patriotism of the holiday reveals to black Americans both its blessings and its barbs. This dramatic leveling of the playing field of American possibility is still sinking in, for all of us. Even as new behavioral models are being road-tested, old habits die hard.

In The Root, William Jelani Cobb’s poignant, beautifully written confession of his conflicted sense of observing President’s Day laid bare just how corrosive history can be:

“There are cynical luxuries that come with being black in this country, like the ability to shrug off the dime-store rites of patriotism. We've seen America through a perpetually raised eyebrow, the yeah, whatever perspective that comes with the terrain on our side of American history. And here lies Presidents Day. Like July 4th, Thomas Jefferson and NASCAR— it comes awash in the crimson, white and navy trimming meant to remind us of our blessed status as Americans.”

For Teresa Wiltz, also writing in The Root, the fascination with President Obama was evident in the faces and attitudes of people at the National Museum of American History in Washington, people posing besides the portrait of the 44th president:

“This impromptu photo-op, say the black folks who work at the museum—the curators, the historians, the security guards—isn’t something that you saw before. People just didn’t pause to pose with say, Warren G. Harding or Grover Cleveland, or even old Abe, celebrating his 200th last week. This, they say, is something different. A first. A shift.”

“You can feel the enthusiasm,” Reuben Jackson, the museum’s associate curator and archivist, told Wiltz. “It’s not some old white guy with a powdered wig.”

Wiltz’s generally upbeat assessment mirrors that of many black Americans, who undoubtedly felt this President’s Day that they really had something to celebrate, that they had more of a vested interest in the outcome of the improvisation collectively known as America. For blacks and minorities, there was finally a reason to salute the subjects of the holiday, beyond the obligatory public genuflections. For the first time in two-hundred-too-many years, black folks had skin in the game.

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Some of the loyal shoppers at the Peterson Air Force Base commissary in Colorado Springs, Colo., didn’t get the message. It was there this week when the picture of the President of the United States was removed from a Presidents Day sign after customers complained. The base is the home of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).

The Defense Commissary Agency, which runs the stores, says employees took down the image, which was accompanied by a sign listing store hours, after customers complained that the holiday is about Presidents Washington and Lincoln.

Two other matters, however, cast doubt on that tenuously legitimate objection on grounds of historicity:

A cashier at the commissary who requested anonymity told The Associated Press that pictures of recent past presidents, including Bush #43 and Bill Clinton, have accompanied the Presidents Day closure sign. The cashier told the AP that one customer, a military retiree, objected specifically because of Obama's race.

“He said they’re not going to have no black man on the window where he shops," the cashier said.

They must be crazy for powdered wigs in that part of Colorado.

◊ ◊ ◊

Two sides of the same American coin, two halves of the same day experienced by the same people. And that duality makes perfect sense given human nature and the propensity for sudden change. It’d be silly to think that, all at once, President’s Day would suddenly resonate for black Americans the way it has for white Americans for generations.

Cynicism, that narcotic of expectation based on past experience, takes time to wean yourself off of. And shoppers at an American military base prove there’s always a drug dealer somewhere.

You don’t get clear of that drug overnight. Recovery is a process. There’ll be setbacks; you’ll fall off the wagon sometimes. But there’s no going backward, for you or this nation. Not now. Not this time.

Those 44 portraits on the presidential wall belong to you, too. They’re part of the museum, the laboratory, the boxing ring, the chapel and synagogue and mosque of this nation, and they’re yours, too. And the 44th picture, the one they couldn’t deal at Peterson Air Force Base, is the one that confirms the promise symbolized by the other 43.

This is something different. A first. A shift.
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Image credits: Washington: National Portrait Gallery, the Smithsonian. Obama: Official White House photo by Pete Souza

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