an american portrait

July 4th, 2024

I visited Washington DC a few weeks ago. It was 100 degrees; the grand boulevards were all but empty. I walked a merciless mile through patches of shade to the National Portrait Gallery. I’d never been. I’m not sure I will go back or that it will still be there if I do. What will become of this place and its people when all is said and done?

These days we hear a lot of racket about our founding fathers and their original intentions. We hear mostly from people who interpret our history and constitution, indeed all our laws, by the notion that they, and they alone, uphold the narrow meaning of the 4,500 words on the four pages of a 240-year-old document, written in secret and signed by 39 white men.

When I entered the gallery, I didn’t know what was inside. For sure, I wanted to see the presidential portraits, especially those prized for their artistry and originality. I wanted to see them with my own eyes, I suppose, to restore my sagging spirits.

You begin by parading past portraits of colonial, revolutionary and early Americans. Sadly, these do not restore your spirits, because these are portraits of the vain and, mostly, vile. Men who might have escaped crimes or debts to amass or inherit a princely purse. Moneyed men who possessed vast reaches of stolen land, once taken by massacre or manipulation, from which profits were extracted by hundreds if not thousands of slaves. There are room after room of them, generations and venerations of them. I’m no constitutional scholar, but the meaning was clear.

When they wrote “we the people,” they could not have meant people like us. They meant only themselves, because only they enjoyed the inalienable rights of personhood.

When they wrote of freedom, they could not have meant us, only that they themselves were free, and that their freedom was not challenged, but endowed at birth.

When they wrote of equality, they meant only that among themselves they were equal in power, place, and participation in this closed society.

They had thrown off the yoke of a king to make themselves kings. The expansion of rights, freedoms, and equality were granted to the rest of us much later on, only to be taken away at whim. It’s no wonder that we’ve been steered here again.

There is a political and philosophical through-line from the first-floor galleries to the far corner of the second floor where the hall of presidents comes to a stop. It ends with another picture of outsized greed and vanity, a slenderizing photograph of Trump veiled in darkness, posing in Churchillian pretense, draped in a blood-red tie.  It is located on the backside of the gloriously colorful portrait of President Obama by Kehinde Wiley. When I stepped around the edge of the display to glimpse Trump’s image, I was afraid to see who might be standing there admiring it.

But the woman I encountered, off to the side, was like me. She was afraid, but not of me. She was proud, but not of him. We said these things to one another in secret, without betraying the other, because we know we are not free, we are not considered equal, and more than any other time in our innocent allegiance, we are not safe in this country.

But we have each other. And we parted knowing that we are not alone.

1 Comment »

  1. Gratitude for your courage and words 🙏

    Comment by JOANNE M STEINER — July 5, 2024 @ 10:12 am

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