By MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN
Children’s Defense Fund
“As Barack said, if the two of us can end up on the walls of the most famous address in the world, then, again, it is so important for every young kid who is doubting themselves to believe that they can, too.”
On Sept. 7, former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama visited the White House for the unveiling of their official White House portraits. The two extraordinary paintings, by Robert McCurdy and Sharon Sprung, have now taken their place in the historic gallery of former presidents and first ladies displayed on the White House walls. The traditional portrait installation ceremony was ignored and delayed during the last administration, but this week, with President Joe Biden, First Lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff all in attendance, once again the Obamas made spectacular and moving history.
The Obamas acknowledged the meaning of the moment as they spoke, and Michelle Obama expressed the special hope that these portraits will help set a new standard of representation for our nation’s children.
She said, “A girl like me, she was never supposed to be up there next to Jacqueline Kennedy and Dolley Madison. She was never supposed to live in this house, and she definitely wasn’t supposed to serve as first lady. But I’ve always wondered: Where does that ‘supposed to’ come from? Who determines it? And too often in this country, people feel like they have to look a certain way or act a certain way to fit in, that they have to make a lot of money or come from a certain group or class or faith in order to matter. But what we’re looking at today – a portrait of a biracial kid with an unusual name and the daughter of a water pump operator and a stay-at-home mom – what we are seeing is a reminder that there’s a place for everyone in this country.
“That is what this country is about. It’s not about blood or pedigree or wealth. It’s a place where everyone should have a fair shot, whether you’re a kid taking two buses and a train just to get to school; or a single mother who is working two jobs to put some food on the table; or an immigrant just arriving, getting your first apartment, forging a future for yourself in a place you dreamed of. That’s why, for me, this day isn’t about me or Barack. It’s not even about these beautiful paintings. It’s about telling that fuller story – a story that includes every single American in every single corner of this country so that our kids and grandkids can see something more for themselves.”
Telling that fuller story has always been necessary to make The American Dream real for everyone. The Obamas remain a beautiful, transformative example of what American leadership and American leaders can look like. Now these new portraits will serve as a reminder to generations of visitors to the White House, our presidency’s seat of power, that we are a nation with a place for everyone.
For many people Michelle Obama’s remarks about their White House portraits brought to mind the similar impact of the Obamas’ earlier portraits for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery collection, especially the much-publicized photograph of two-year-old Parker Curry, a beautiful Black girl, craning her neck and staring at Amy Sherald’s life-size portrait of Michelle Obama in awe. Parker and her mother Jessica have since written a series of children’s books, including The New York Times bestselling picture book that recreates that day at the museum, Parker Looks Up: An Extraordinary Moment. The book captures the moment when Parker whispered that she could see a queen – “unable to look away, to move, to breathe.” It also noted the queen in the painting had “rich brown skin, just like Parker, and kind, familiar eyes that reminded Parker of … her mother, her grandmother, her sister, and yes – even of herself.” All children deserve that moment of seeing themselves in books, art and in the halls of power and knowing they are part of a community and country where everyone is represented, everyone belongs and any future is possible for every child.
Marian Wright Edelman is the founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund whose mission is “Leave No Child Behind.” For more information, visit https://www.childrensdefense.org.