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(On MLK’s birthday, an affectionate exploration of Pete Souza’s photograph of Stevie Wonder in the Oval Office, and more.)
Last weekend, I remembered Stevie Wonder’s pivotal role in creating a federal holiday to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday.
It wasn’t the first thing that came to mind when seeing this photograph (by stalwart White House photographer Pete Souza) of Mr. Wonder holding a bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Oval Office. I was distracted by the immediacy of the photo’s odd and surprising details; Lincoln’s gauzy gaze, the inscription on the rug, the pendant in Wonder’s hair.
It took a few days of returning to the photo (while sitting on a park bench at my daughter’s favorite playground, in this, the 5th Congressional district of Georgia) to remember Wonder’s role in creating the holiday, and then came the realization, a first for me in this soon-to-be-post-Obama pre-Trump maelstrom: America used to be really great.
Remember when we rose above our repressive past, against the odds (and the old, bitter & southern objections of men like Jesse Helms) to Do The Right Thing?
Stevland Hardaway Morris (that’s him, in Souza’s photo) helped create a movement memorializing Atlanta’s favored son. My family and I have the good fortune to live in Atlanta. When people visit, I make an extra effort to swing them by MLK’s birthplace so they can at least remember it: I went there once, I saw his house on Auburn Avenue.
Souza’s photograph does a lot of heavy lifting. Deftly. There are levels and layers packed-into its frame, and my hope here is to luxuriate inside its borders, explore not just what the photo’s saying, but try and track exactly how it achieves what it achieves, and find out where that leaves us now, on the brink of this unspeakable new.
First, the facts: Stevie Wonder spent much of his career (after being injured in a car crash in Winston-Salem in 1973) advocating for the creation of the MLK holiday. He spoke to Congress; organized petitions; led marches; he even wrote and performed this song in 1980.
After years of contention and defeat, six million signatures were delivered to Congress by Coretta Scott King and Wonder, the measure was voted on and passed 338 to 90. It was 1983, 25 years after the bill’s first introduction by Congressman John Conyers. A right thing was done.
Arizona and South Carolina infamously struggled with enacting the new law. Public Enemy jumped into the fray with a protest song and provocative video. As one of three Arizona House Republicans at the time, conservative maverick John McCain sided with bigots and was one of the 90 in dissent.
Even today, in 2017, some states can’t even bring themselves to call it “Martin Luther King, Jr. Day,” regretfully coupling it with a celebration for Robert E. Lee (Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi) further chaining themselves to the darkness of the Confederacy, a spirit that is still, somehow, on life support.
Pete Souza’s tenure as White House photographer benefitted from timing and access, in equal measures. In our last eight years of digital interconnectedness, Souza’s office (the former White House barbershop) cranked-out spectacular, timely photographs that showed a President at one with himself and his mission.
You’ve seen his photos, even if you haven’t been looking for them. There are best-of-Pete-Souza-in-the-White-House links all over this Web. (Here are Souza’s favorites from 2016.)
Through Souza’s viewfinder, the private Obama became public, and the public Obama offered a private look at a President in ways we’ve never seen; or rather, in ways my generation didn’t see and couldn’t have seen from Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, or Bush II.
They were Presidents, first and foremost. (Well, Clinton will always be Bubba.) Obama was a different man for these times. Much could be written, and will be written, post-Presidency, about the difference between Obama the Man and Obama the President, but an avid watcher gets the sense that the crack between the two was a hairline, the smallest of fractures.
Souza’s role was to keep that gap as narrow as possible — to present a merged view of man and President as one, a wholly unique melding of intelligence, competence, optimism, and hope (and whatever other Obama superlative you want to throw in there). In part through Souza’s photography, Obama’s legacy has been forged.
With a stack of faults thinner than his predecessors, you get the sense that Obama’s allowance for Souza’s unprecedented access was because Obama knew he had nothing to hide. And that ultimately, if your story’s going to be told through the lens of history, you might as well have this guy’s lens at your side, issuing stills to start the tale.
Souza’s proficiency and digitally-fueled largesse was unparalleled. (The craft and formal excellence of his frames are due a formal, book-length appreciation from photography’s best wordsmith, at least.) Souza’s output collapsed the distance between photojournalism, advocacy, and political marketing, while documenting a living history in real-time, in ways that we’ll come to understand and appreciate in the final days of Not So Great America, or not.
Hauntingly, appreciating Souza’s work to its fullest might require years of its absence, when only the starkness of contrast will force us to realize how spoiled we were by his photography’s ubiquitous consistency, excellence and insight.
It sounds crude, but visually impaired people (and twins, especially twins) have been a kind of catnip & kryptonite for photographers since the beginning of the medium. The act of photographing the blind provides the photographer with an experience unlike any other; I’m seeing you — you can’t see me. It’s kid’s stuff; photographic hide-and-seek.
If you spend time behind a camera, you spend time being seen as someone making pictures, and in accordance, the world skews slightly around you, a half-step to the left to accommodate your lens. What you observe as a photographer is changed, simply by observing.
When making a photograph of someone who literally can’t see you, the transaction tilts entirely in the photographer’s favor. Here’s a portrait that tilted in Paul Strand’s favor, in 1916, while photographing surreptitiously with a “snooper” lens.
It’s one of the most iconic images of the medium, blending social justice with the artist’s political point-of-view, while leaning on one of the greatest strengths of photography, the allowance to look and linger, in a single frame.
(It’s also interesting that Strand created this picture with a lens that made it appear to everyone around him that he was photographing something else. A magician’s feint, a misdirection. Strand’s behavior in public was hidden, not just to the subject, but to everyone else on the street.)
We look back at the woman. Can she see at all with her left eye? How long has she been wearing that sign? She has a license; is that for panhandling? We wonder what it’s like to be her. Strand’s success with this photo is in the art of the open-ended question; confrontational and clear: what must we make of this?
And once we decide, what exactly are we going to do to change her world, and by extension, ours?
It’s a photograph about twin ways of seeing.
Souza’s photograph is patently less confrontational than Strand’s. When I think of what must have been happening in real-time that led to the photographed moment (as the President explained aloud the paintings, and perhaps the sculpture, as Wonder reached out) I can almost see Souza drawn to the scene like a magnet, knowing its visual weight.
In the moment he clicked the shutter, two images were rendered: the one in Wonder’s imagination, after holding the bust of MLK, and the one made of 1s and zeros, deep on Souza’s SD card.
Aside from location, consider the image’s rarity. A photograph of the most famous visually-impaired American, having a touching moment with a sculpture of a man who’s legacy he spent years of his life trying to protect.
It’s rare to see a human touch another human’s face in public, especially when they’re strangers, but Wonder’s action is rarer still — touch as an act of translation.
As Wonder turns the three dimensions of MLK’s face into a mental image, Souza is just over his shoulder, attempting the same feat, with a camera.
It reminds me of another frame of Souza’s from 2016, taken at a Black History Celebration at the White House in February. He writes about the photograph in the caption here, but it’s affecting to see and consider the power of such a simple gesture.
Here’s Janell Ross from the Washington Post, describing that moment and more:
Whatever the Obama administration’s victories and defeats, its achievements and its failures — and those that remain to come — one look at this little boy standing behind a White House rope line, shirttails un-tucked, jacket buttoned and tie somehow looped over said rope, really makes one thing clear: Our collective notion of what is feasible in the United States forever changed between February 2008 and February 2016.
There’s a micro-phenomena that exists between golfers that’s rarely talked about, but (for me, at least) hard to ignore. The game of golf is in constant dialogue with the brightest moments of its history, so much so, you feel like you could be communing with the sport’s greats with every perfect swing.
Concurrently, the game’s rituals and rules are a ramshackle mix of obscure and nostalgic, and one in particular transformed into The Obligatory Hat Removal & Post-Round Handshake. It’s so firmly embedded that ladies and kids have their own versions, with everyone indoctrinated into the values of this display of sportsmanship as soon (and often before) they learn how to swing.
As an amateur competitive golfer, in nearly half the tournaments I’ve finished, I’ve reached out to shake the hand of my fellow competitor, and been amazed when they don’t return my gaze and look me in the eye. Sounds corny; it is. Good golfers are notoriously prickly, often anti-social folk, more obsessed with smacking an object 290 yards than with more earthly concerns.
But it’s a personal fascination of mine — tracking this tiny virus-of-manners that’s infected my post-round ritual. I’m a sample-size of one, but it still feels real, significant, and telling; a golf-bound canary, chirping that the social order’s come undone.
It was hard not to notice the virus spread between these two golfers on Nov. 10th, a day and a half after the election, again, in the Oval Office.
While at first, I was more struck by Alston’s sculpture of MLK over Trump’s right shoulder in the still above, everything I wanted to know about the magnitude of this moment (and how both men were handling it) seemed encapsulated by the fact that Trump couldn’t meet Obama’s eyes while shaking his hand.
In November, Norman Rockwell’s granddaughter wrote a piece on Huffington Post with a theory about the painting visible over Trump’s right shoulder. It’s this piece, by her grand-dad, seen here in its popularized form, as a magazine cover, and on-sale in the White House Historical Association gift shop.
Painted by Rockwell for the July 6th edition of the Saturday Evening Post in 1946, British art critic Jonathan Jones recently dissected the painting for the Guardian, where he too, assumed it had been moved above Trump’s shoulder.
“The picture is of the Statue of Liberty’s torch seen from behind against a bright blue sky. Courageous workers are spectacularly balanced on it as they repair this icon of a welcoming US. Even without the fact that one of the tiny figures is African American, this would be a significant image to hang behind a president-elect who has spat out hateful rhetoric about building walls and deporting people.”
While it would have been a brilliant troll by White House staff to shuttle the painting to appear in photographs behind Trump, it’s not true. Here’s the painting (gifted to President Clinton by Steven Spielberg) in the same location, in May of 2014, during happier times for John Podesta.
And here’s the President explaining his affection for the Rockwell’s torch-cleaning painting, when it was closer to his desk, back in 2010.
“It’s a reminder that we constantly have to renew the flames of our democracy.”
This week (Jan 9-13th, 2017) we’ve been able to see these “flames of Democracy,” even if it’s not entirely clear if they’re being rekindled or whether someone at Trump Tower has created a fire-break to drown out our Republic’s oxygen.
The part that made me catch my breath was thinking about about how the spirit of Coretta Scott King was reaching out with words-of-intent-and-wisdom that Strom Thurmond disrespectfully ignored 30 years ago, when Jeff Sessions was prevented from ascending to a Federal judgeship.
Every morning on my way to work, I get to pick and choose which route to drive, and more often than not, I send myself up Auburn Ave., past MLK’s birthplace, past the spot where his crypt lies beside Coretta’s, across the way from a small, eternal flame.
I thought about that flame a lot this week, and while I don’t typically consider the power of ghosts, it was hard fact to discount: it felt like Coretta was trying to say something we needed to hear. Her letter reminded me that even though the week was unfolding like an ongoing disaster, I needed to stop and remind myself to “look for the helpers”.
Coretta’s spirit was helping.
If you were paying attention, you saw them everywhere: Cory Booker; Al Franken; Amita Swadhin; John Lewis (whom we’re lucky to have as our Congressman) Jim Acosta; Richard Prince (!); David Cole; Elizabeth Warren standing-up against Republicans voting under the dark of night to repeal healthcare for children in order to get a tax-break for the ultra-rich; John Whitehouse; Oscar Vasquez; Marco Rubio (!) grilling Tillerson as to whether he considers Putin a war criminal for bombing civilians in Syria; and Cedric Richmond, who equated John Lewis being given the last spot to speak in the hearing to being seated “at the back of the bus.”
Richmond’s statement gave me a chill — the kind where you shake your head and can’t believe what you’ve just heard. Richmond was right; too damn right.
And while the drama of this week has been unrelenting (I want to see January 10th, 2017 respun in the hands of our finest documentarians, a la Brett Morgen’s remarkable 30 for 30 about June 17th, 1994) I kept flipping back to Stevie Wonder in the Oval Office as both totem and talisman, something that could ground and confound.
In 2009, President Obama installed Charles Alston’s bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. soon after moving into the Oval Office. (It was the first piece of art of an African-American ever displayed at the White House, when it first went on view in 1999.) In Obama’s office, Alston’s piece replaced a bust of Winston Churchill. The President talks about it here:
In addition to sculptures, Charles Alston made paintings and murals, and supervised WPA projects. There are multiple copies of the bust in existence; one was donated by Chicago-based collectors to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, where it was on-display last year, during MLK’s birthday celebrations.
If you were to planning a visit to Washington, D.C. during the upcoming inauguration weekend, the National Museum of African American History and Culture has updated their website with a helpful FAQ, because “what have you got to lose?”
While Alston might have been trying to speak to Wonder through the sculpted face of Martin Luther King, Jr., the incoming President signaled he prefers getting rid of the pioneering Civil Rights leader in favor of the return of the Churchill. And he’ll even have Brexiteer Boris deliver it by hand!
It might not be a good sign for the rest of us, but it’s a good sign for Alston, and for Coretta, and Dr. King, who won’t have to witness the transformation of the office into headquarters of the kakistocracy.
Every morning I wake-up to two photographs of America in crisis.
In 1968, photographer Paul Fusco rode on the train that carried Robert F. Kennedy’s casket between New York City and Washington, D.C. Millions lined the route to get one last glance of RFK, and to pay their respects.
Every morning before I put on my glasses, I look at these two pictures (even if just for a glance) and they remind me how Americans, during the darkest time(s), bravely faced the unknown. I usually look right at this man in green, pixellated here, but still looking directly at Fusco as the train heads south past this subway platform.
A body language expert could tell you more about him. A high-res scan from Magnum photos would unlock all kinds of details about these Americans, whose fleeting expressions were all captured on a few millimeters of film emulsion in the back of Paul Fusco’s Leica.
“There were mothers with curlers in their hair and toddlers on their hips. There were middle-aged men in Bermuda shorts who looked as if they had dashed over, their lawn mowers left growling under the sun. There were children dressed in seas of plaid, not able to fully comprehend why their mothers’ faces were so swollen.”
They were all here that morning in 1968, with Fusco and the train, with fellow mourners and neighbors, everyone confused or at least unsure, dumbstruck and numb — but as the train passed, they all eventually turned around, swiped away tears and moved toward the kinds of lives they needed to live in order to make sense of how painful it is to watch a dream die.
It’s a lot to swallow before making the morning coffee.
But it helps to have a touchstone, a reminder, not a sugar-coated motivational poster, but a document, an actuality, a proof of resiliance in a time of national struggle.
This section could have been a series of GIFs of Sheila Jackson Lee and Barbara Lee standing-up to protest the electoral vote tally — two women who had the guts to ask for the procedure to pause and consider the consequences, while nearly every other Congressperson sat on their hands.
It’s difficult to unsee our collective, ongoing, ironic shame in how this role of public resistance consistently falls to the shoulders of black women, while our country’s leaders derisively laugh from the wings, as Biden repeatedly gaveled against their unsigned-by-a-Senator complaints.
Or this could be where I try and connect Stevie Wonder’s performance as a 12-year old boy at Harlem’s Apollo Theater (the sound of his harmonica just caused our dog Cronkite to whimper and leave the room) to how Charles Alston was Romare Bearden’s cousin, and how they both played pivotal roles in the Harlem Renaissance.
Or how nearly 160 years ago, George Henry Story entered the Oval Office to make sketches of Abraham Lincoln that would later become the painting that would hang in that same office, and how Lincoln’s eyes look toward the right of the room, toward where Wonder stood with MLK’s bust, to the fireplace where Trump burned with his birthersfull of shame and disrespect, unable to look Obama in the eyes for the post-round handshake.
Lincoln’s eyes are still watching.
It’s hard not to get metaphysical about it, how he’s overlooking the section of rug emblazoned with a quote from John F. Kennedy’s commencement address to American University in 1963:
“No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.”
The Oval Office rug has been engaged in a daily war against forgetting, and while it hasn’t been the most visible thing (though it often appeared in Souza’s photographs) the rug declared itself in a caught phrase underfoot, witnessed in a downglance, to anyone with the honor of visiting the President.
The woven JFK quote is a reminder that the new administration will be staffed (mainly) by men, who will, on January 21st or soon after, roll-up Obama’s rug and send it off to a library, so their leather-clad soles won’t be encumbered by Kennedy’s, Teddy Roosevelt’s, MLK’s, or FDR’s words that for the past six years (the Oval Office was remodeled for the Obama-age in 2010) have encircled that room.
History means little to the incoming, 45th POTUS. To Trump, history reads like a list of personal grievances that never intersect with examples of American greatness, fortitude, or perseverance. He keeps talking about Patton, but I bet he’s only seen the movie. Trump’s feet, and Pence’s, and Bannon’s won’t be burdened by the historical gravity of the phrases on Obama’s rug — they’ll be able to trample right across whichever woven replacement is fit for a billionaire’s playpen.
And he’ll stride right across it in order to sign Executive Orders that trample whichever flavor of the moment he finds most disagreeable; health care, immigrants, minorities, women, the poor.
He’ll win so much we’ll get sick of winning.
Yesterday, the last day of the work week, NBC published a tease in the late afternoon from its Meet The Press interview with Congressman, John Lewis, who said:
“You cannot be at home with something that you believe is wrong.”
While I was out on Saturday morning to hear a friend’s talk at an art gallery, Trump declared our neighborhood (in John Lewis’ 5th Congressional district) as “crime-infested,” “burning,” “in horrible shape,” and “falling apart.”
I’m proud our Congressman is the only one with the guts to call Trump’s ascendency illegitimate, and it’s great to see so many members of Congress following in his wake.
I especially appreciate how it makes strategic Democratic brokers like David Axelrod nervous. While Axelrod may not have been directly involved with Hillary’s campaign, his party’s style of thinking wasn’t persuasive enough to stop 100,000 people in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania from achieving clearance for the current trajectory of our country.
Hillary may have lost (and one could argue, deserved to lose) the election, but Trump’s bitter and reactionary voters haven’t sealed our fate.
Eight years ago on Friday, Jan. 20th, I asked my wife to marry me.
It was her birthday, and we’d both worked hard in South Carolina and Georgia to help elect Barack Obama. We were celebrating at the inauguration, and I decided to go for the trifecta (birthday, inaugural, proposal) and pop the question.
When we got home, we crowd-sourced our engagement photo, because there were so many people there with cameras (even eight years ago) we figured someone from the internet had us inadvertently photo-bombing their background, and sure enough Erin Goodnough found us in hers, slightly obscured, center-left, red coat, orange hat.
Which is a way of saying, as much as I try, I can’t believe you’ll find alt-right couples who fell in love while campaigning for Trump getting engaged next Friday on the Washington Mall, but I’m probably wrong.
Love, by nature, isn’t political, but it surely isn’t conservative.
If you love conservatively, you’ll lose it. If you live conservatively, you’ll eventually get to rest in a silk-lined casket with your shirt tucked-in. If you spend conservatively, you too can end-up like Scrooge McDuck!
When explaining the 2016 Presidential campaign to our four-year-old (Scrooge McDuck fan) I found that the simplest way of illuminating the differences between the party’s choices was to say:
“Bernie loves people more than money; Trump loves money more than people.”
If the difference is simple enough for a four-year-old to understand (and no one’s challenged me on its truthfulness) how could 63 million Americans be so cravenly wrong?
The question’s rhetorical, and while there are 63 million answers, it’d be fascinating to see how few of those answers are about the privilege of attaining an education, and how that education (at its best) empowers you with the kinds of tools to question everything — and if you’re questioning everything, and trying to make a deliberate edumacated guess about who might make the best possible President for everyone in America (rather than your own wallet) there’s no way you pulled the lever for Trump.
Conservatism is the selfishness of a closed fist, a clench, a tightening that results in a pull or a tear, a wicked cramp. You can only grind your teeth down so far.
Creativity is boundless, impossible to arrest, can’t be walled-in, and is, in its very nature, against nearly all systems of control.
I’ll always side with laughter. With love. With the ability to spin hardship into salvation through storytelling, art-making, or whatever else it is you create to try and celebrate the positive while coming to grips with the overwhelming discontinuity and hypocrisy of the world around you.
Ask Charles Alston. Ask Stevie Wonder.
You’re probably as tired of hearing “Signed, Sealed & Delivered” as I am, but if you’re on the side of the musician, who at the height of his career, gave everything to ensure our nation would honor America’s greatest Civil Rights leader, you too are doing the right thing.
We’re starlight, Trumplings. He’s burning too bright to not break.
Turn your dial toward the kind of greatness he’d revile. It’s now, and it’s never never.
If you’re single, a free-agent in the company of the world, risk more than makes you comfortable. If you have kids or dependents, or someone who needs you to play it safe, risk as much as you can without endangering their future.
In 2003, millions marched worldwide against the impending war in Iraq, and it changed nothing. Dubya took his dad’s cronies to the desert so they could pad their pockets and fulfill an epic, bloodthirsty, “finish-the-job-my-daddy-started” mythic retribution that cost thousands of American soldiers (and a hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians) their lives.
It’ll happen again, and it’ll happen faster if you’re silent.
Your participation means the world. I’m glad to see you’re holding it again — it’s in your hands.
Turn it over.
Now tell me what you see.
20170115 — MDM.
[Epilogue: Pete Souza has to buy some camera equipment on January 21st.]