Washington, D.C.’s National Portrait Gallery Has Moved Beyond ‘Old, Dead White Men’

Photo: Paul Morigi (AP)
AntisocialThe society column for people afraid of society, written by The Root's Editor-in-Chief and resident Bipolar Disorder expert/sufferer.

There’s something special about a portrait of Earth, Wind & Fire, the masterminds behind hits like “September” and “Sing a Song,” hanging in the same gallery that holds portraits of the Founding Fathers. Mostly that it seems unexpected even though their status as icons in the music industry is well-solidified. They deserve to grace these halls. It only seems “unexpected” in that the National Portrait Gallery—which now boasts a photographic portrait of the band—was not originally known for its diversity.

It was known as the home for—what journalist and TV anchor Gayle King describes aptly as—pictures of “old, dead white men.”

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“[The National Portrait Gallery] doesn’t want this just to be a place for old, dead white men because the country is so much bigger than that,” said King in the press room ahead of the gala. “And so, to embrace that and open the doors and have the diversity that they have and the people that they’re honoring, I just think it just makes you very proud. That’s how I feel. I feel very proud to be part of this occasion.”

King, who was the master of ceremonies for Sunday night’s American Portrait Gala benefiting the National Portrait Gallery, said this multiple times—in the media room before the night’s festivities and during the program—that the whole “old, dead white men” thing was something the museum was moving past. But don’t worry, Founding Fathers lovers. Your portraits of a (very white and male) past still remain, featuring the likes of Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington. They aren’t going anywhere. But Earth, Wind & Fire, Puerto Rican Broadway playwright and songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda and Indian-American business executive Indra Nooyi—whose portraits were inducted on Sunday alongside depictions of long-time fashion editor Anna Wintour and second-richest man in the world, Amazon titan Jeff Bezos—are now there to provide some much-needed representation to this historic institution.

After all, the National Portrait Gallery isn’t all just presidents and politicos. They let Teenage Dream-era Katy Perry in with her candy crown. And while there are a lot of portraits of, again, old, dead white men, there are also portraits of Olympic sprinter Wilma Rudolph, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and poet Maya Angelou, among many, many others.

In fact, the most popular portraits in the gallery right now, aren’t even of our nation’s founders, but of former (aka “Forever”) President and first lady, Barack and Michelle Obama, who museum patrons have been flocking to see since their unveiling in 2018.

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“Just think of the message that it sends,” King said of this necessary diversity, referencing the young girl famously mesmerized by the portrait of Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald. “Whether it’s Michelle Obama or Lin-Manuel Miranda. When they said that after the Obamas, the president that they want to see most is Alexander Hamilton because—and I’m quoting someone else, not me—He made Alexander Hamilton ‘sexy.’ You wanted to learn about the history. You wanted to learn who he was and what he did for this country. So I think it’s an educational experience, certainly, but it’s also a very physical experience when you walk through and see what’s here.”

The Root was in the house for the American Portrait Gala, which featured marquee guests like former first lady Michelle Obama, Democratic presidential candidate and former first lady Hillary Clinton, international law and human rights attorney Amal Clooney, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, actor Kathy Bates, and legendary music mogul Clive Davis. Those dignitaries, along with the honorees—which included scientist Frances Arnold and the aforementioned Earth, Wind & Fire, Bezos, Miranda, Wintour, and Nooyi—made the gala quite, for lack of a better term, star-studded. Including stars of the celebrity quality—like comedian James Corden, who introduced Wintour clad in an iconic Anna Wintour-esque wig and shades—and those of the simply brilliant quality like Nepalese-American fashion designer Prabal Gurung, the honorary fashion designer for the gala, who dressed many of the participants.

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The diversity in the room and on the stage was not by happy accident, but by design, according to Kim Sajet, the National Portrait Gallery’s director, who talked quite a bit about the importance of the portrait gallery embracing our nation’s cultural richness, and how even including a business titan like Bezos was a departure from historic norms at the gallery.

“I’m not going to pretend that our history hasn’t been extremely elitist,” Sajet told The Root before the gala. “We live under this idea that meritocracy gets hued to a certain point of achievement but historically that was not true.”

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But the gallery is looking to correct that, and those corrections start with the gala and the individuals it chooses to now honor, individuals who better reflect the diversity that makes our nation unparalleled. There is no need to erase history, but to add more context (and diverse portraits) to it, finally giving those long-neglected their due, and their place, among the captains of our democracy.

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About the author

Danielle C. Belton

Editor-in-Chief of The Root. Nerd. AKA "The Black Snob."