More Than a Day Off?

Presidents Day at the museum has a whole new meaning, now that there's a brother on the wall.

Obama is re-sworn in as President

“You can feel the enthusiasm,” says Reuben Jackson, 52, the museum’s associate curator and archivist. “It’s not some old white guy with a powdered wig.”

“I call myself a black man who’s still got anger issues,” Jackson continues, “which provides its own loneliness. To see young people here, unpoisoned by racism” is really powerful. [WATCH related video of Jackson.]

Back in ’76, Ebony acknowledged the complexity of black patriotism, posing the question: Should Blacks Celebrate the Bicentennial? (The answer: A qualified maybe.) Long before that, there was Frederick Douglass, who declared, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”

You don’t have to be African and American to parse the nuance in Michelle Obama’s much-pilloried declaration that she was, for the first time in her adult life, really proud of her country. But it sure helps.

And yet, on one level, Barack Obama’s election has unleashed a certain pride in patria among African Americans: Witness the scores of black folks peacefully bum-rushing the Mall since early January, waving the American flag. Grinning.

What does black patriotism look like at a time when African Americans find that they are, as comic Wanda Sykes cracked, now The Man? When we look back, will this Presidents Day have meant more than a three-day weekend and super sales in February? Will African Americans claim a certain agency now? Will they see the presidency as part of a government that is, to coin the phrase of a hip-hop clothing line, for us, by us?

Military folks, of course, have always waved the flag, even when representing for a distinctly separate-but-unequal soldiery. But for many black Americans, flag-waving wasn’t a part of the cultural zeitgeist.

“I think we had it in us,” says Barbara Payne, who’s been working as a security guard at the museum for the past eight years. “But it’s coming out now.”

Before Obama was elected, she says, the war and the economy weighed heavy. “You could see that people were depressed,” she says of the museum visitors. Now, she says, you see more people of color popping into the presidential exhibit, as well as visitors from around the world, from Australia, to India, to Africa.

“It feels like a family picnic in here,” observes Lindsey Washington, another security guard who works in the presidential gallery.