Living in America – eye to eye, station to station
Living in America – hand to hand, across the nation
Living in America – got to have a celebration…
You might not be looking for the promised land,
but you might find it anyway.
—James Brown, “Living in America”
Black patriotism has always been a complicated thing. It’s hard to love a country that doesn’t love you back. Perhaps this Presidents Day will be different.
Wander into the presidential gallery at the National Museum of American History, and this is what you will see: A timeline sprawling over a giant, curving wall. Stretching across it are portraits of pale presidential faces, from George the first to George the 43rd. And then, over there, way at the end, is the decidedly brown visage of Barack the 44th. It’s a visceral hit; a visual confirmation that the past is indeed prologue, and the present has only just begun.
There, visitors stop, stare, pose for pictures with the presidential headshot. 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.