From Iowa to the White House:
Historic Photographs of
President Barack Obama
On Exhibit: Now - March 27, 2010
From the Photographer's Perspective
by Derrick Z. Jackson
On a surprisingly summery October afternoon at a fairground in Independence, Iowa, Barack Obama’s sleeves were rolled up against a heat wave from the right-wing airwaves. In this region, where cornfields were turning bronze and hay bales dotted the landscape, critics were making hay with the fact that Obama did not wear a lapel pin of the American flag. This was despite the fact that few of the presidential candidates, Democrat or Republican, consistently wore a pin.
“Tricky politics here for Barack Obama,” said an anchor for ABC News.
“You Democrats are so fixated on hating Bush, and you're so fixated on undermining the war, that you even now are using the American flag as a statement,” said FOX’s Sean Hannity to a Democratic strategist.
“A breathtaking misunderstanding of the symbolism of the American flag,” said a New York Daily News editorial.
The night before, Obama told a Cedar Rapids television station that he wore the pin for a while after 9/11 but said he stopped wearing one because it was often misused as a “substitute for true patriotism.” Then, at this event, which I happened to be covering as a columnist for the Boston Globe, Obama spoke on the issue for the first time directly to several hundred Iowans at a live event.
"Somebody noticed I wasn’t wearing a flag lapel pin and I told folks, well you know what? I haven’t probably worn that pin in a very long time,” Obama said. “I wore it right after 9/11. But after a while, you start noticing people wearing a lapel pin, but not acting very patriotic. Not voting to provide veterans with resources that they need. Not voting to make sure that disability payments were coming out on time.”
“My attitude is that I’m less concerned about what you’re wearing on your lapel than what’s in your heart. And you show your patriotism by how you treat your fellow Americans, especially those who served. You show your patriotism by being true to our values and our ideals and that’s what we have to lead with is our values and our ideals.”
Obama spoke about flag pins with a giant American flag draped behind him. Besides my pen, pad and tape recorder, I also had my camera. Things clicked for me and I started clicking away. Here he was, negotiating the classic tortured straits of African Americans, having to go an extra measure to affirm his patriotism, before a flag that historically was a blind sentinel on America’s torture of black people. This red and white delivered a whole lot of the blues.
Yet, if he won, this black man would represent this flag as arguably the most powerful man on earth. How far would that be from the famous photographic statement of Gordon Parks in his 1942 “American Gothic,” where he posed an African American cleaning woman before the American flag with a mop and broom? Parks said that image “expresses more than any other photograph” in exposing, “the evils of racism, the evils of poverty, the discrimination and the bigotry.”
How far would it be from the words Frederick Douglass, who once spoke in Boston’s African Meeting House, delivered to a crowd in Rochester, New York on July 4, 1852: “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine,” he said, “Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. . .This sunlight that brought life and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me.”
That is why out of all the images in From Iowa to the White House: Historic Photos of President Obama, the one I feel most attached to is “Independence Flag 1” taken in Independence, Iowa. One hundred and fifty-five years after Douglass decried the stripes of the slaver’s lash, Obama stood before stars and stripes that were glowing in afternoon light. In the image, he is looking out to the crowd with a searching face, a searching surely made all the more intense because he was appealing to an almost all white and predominately a middle-aged and elderly crowd with plenty of war veterans.
Obama’s explanation proved to be enough as the main questions from the crowd were on health care and Iraq. In this high noon of patriotism in Independence, Obama closed the distance between himself and his audience in the photograph “Health Care Story” when he reached out to hold the hand of a moist-eyed woman whose brother had to keep working despite suffering from cancer, to maintain his health insurance.
It may have been only a mere coincidence of the flag controversy being sufficiently buried, but two weeks later, Obama beamed the brightest of smiles before another giant American flag in Madison, Wisconsin (“Madison Flag 1”). The sight was an embodiment of the desire a century ago of W.E.B. DuBois, who wrote in The Souls of Black Folk that African Americans simply want “to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed or spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.” This was a different smile from a black man than the ones Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote about a century ago, when he expressed that black people “wear the mask that grins and lies” to hide our “tears and sighs.”
What indeed would DuBois, Hughes and Dunbar have thought of Barack Obama riding endless hours past fields of corn, bales of hay, over hills caked with ice, campaigning across vastly white Iowa? What would they have thought of him in autumn’s glow and oncoming winter’s gloom beseeching town halls in equally white New Hampshire, where the poet Claude McKay once lamented he could not enjoy the “springing April grass,” the “happy winds,” “sweet May flowers,” and the “silver speckled sky,” wasting his “golden hours indoors, washing windows and scrubbing floors,” just like Gordon Parks’ cleaning woman.
The sight of Obama on the campaign trail created scenes that were downright out of a Norman Rockwell painting. One of his most famous paintings is “Christmas Homecoming.” At the center is the back of a man being hugged as generations of an adoring family look on. By serendipity a packed multicultural group of voters trying to shake Obama’s hand in the photograph, “Madison Crowd,” created almost the same effect, with the same golden hue of Rockwell. It is a common scene captured in variations by many photographers. I am happy to just have one.
The images in From Iowa to the White House were taken over the course of two years while I traveled across America covering the Obama campaign. I too was on the road, from February 2007 when he announced his candidacy for president, to February 2009 when he gave his first nationally televised White House news conference. If there is one thing I hoped to capture in some way for the viewer, it is how the campaign uniquely altered our symbolism, how it challenged everyone to take off their masks.
But did Obama still wear a mask? Only he knows. I wrote in the Globe that Obama had to be serious without being angry. He had to relate without being a clown. He had to be the soul brother for the nation without being a singer or preacher. He had to be cool without being cold. Above all, he could never lose his cool. Four centuries of discipline culminated in Obama's stride to the Grant Park podium in Chicago as president-elect.
He channeled everyone from Harriet Tubman who never lost a “passenger” on the Underground Railroad to Ida B. Wells, who kept writing against lynching after her Memphis newspaper office was destroyed. He had the mask of calm that got Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron through the abuses heaped upon them during their athletic careers. He had that mask even after he gave his speech on race in Philadelphia in response to inflammatory statements by his former pastor that critics viewed as unpatriotic. Advisor David Axelrod said of Obama’s closest friends and family who were in attendance: “Everybody was in tears. All I remember is Barack saying, ‘I think that was solid.’ ”
That is one solid mask.
Many people ask me what it was like to be in Chicago’s Grant Park the night of Obama’s election. I will most remember the crowd of 125,000 people saying the Pledge of Allegiance. Like so many Americans, I grew up with highly conflicted feelings about the Pledge and the flag. Now 54, I am the son of parents who fled segregated Mississippi for the factories of Milwaukee. My mother, a light-skinned African American, told me stories of how her white co-workers in her Milwaukee seamstress shop would try to invite her to picnics but asked her not to tell her darker co-workers. She refused those invitations.
I was too young to be part of the civil rights movement, but old enough to adorn the artifacts of anger, like my “Free Angela Davis” button. Old enough to protest the exclusion of Africa from my high school world history class and to get called before the vice principal for writing a book review on the Autobiography of Malcolm X. I was a beneficiary of a still-decent public school education, affirmative action and the Kerner Commission Report that said America needed more black journalists. But after getting in the door, I saw too many ceilings still placed against the aspirations of my colleagues. To this day, African American journalists are only five percent of newsrooms. Those who know my column know that I often write on economic, education and health disparities still confronting African Americans.
I wrote in the Globe that I had never in my life heard such a multicultural throng recite the pledge with such determined enunciation, expelling it from the heart in a treble soaring to the skies and a bass drumming through the soil to vibrate my feet. The treble and bass met in my spine, where "liberty and justice for all" evoked neither clank of chains nor cackle of cruelty, but a warm tickle of Jeffersonian slave-owning irony: Justice cannot sleep forever.
After Obama’s historic election, I interviewed political scientists who found feelings of “patriotism” growing dramatically during the campaign among African Americans. For the University of Washington’s Christopher Parker, it was personal. A Navy veteran, Parker said he too had a chill in his spine after the election when he stood for the national anthem and the unfurling of the American flag before the Washington-UCLA football game in Seattle. He said, "In the Navy we were conditioned to revere the flag, but knowing what it often stood for, it was a tortured feeling. I've often had a hard time saying the words. But as I watched the flag being unfurled, time kind of slowed down. I thought of [Obama’s] race speech, the Democratic National Convention, and the crowd in Denver. I thought about him at Grant Park. I felt free to be proud, free not to be angry. I can actually say the words. I'm thinking, `Oh, I guess it's OK to be an American now."
This was a long way from 1887 when Frederick Douglass said, "I have no patriotism" for a nation that does "not recognize me as a man." Given that Douglass spoke in the Museum of African American History’s historic African Meeting House in Boston, it is the best of full circles. This exhibit is on the first African American that America recognized as the person to lead the nation. The award-winning, Boston-based photographer Lou Jones wrote in 2006, “Stories are ephemeral. Memories fade. Photographs do not. Photographers bring back permanent proof of things never before seen.” My life-long friend and Pulitzer-prize winning photographer for the New York Times, Ozier Muhammad, says of his nearly 30 years of Harlem images, “I felt like I was sort of communing with the spirits and it almost felt like I was walking on sacred ground.”
This exhibit, From Iowa to the White House, on display at the Museum of African American History in Boston, is meant to provide a portion of permanent proof of a patriotism never before seen. It is meant to share my space with you of the sacred ground of history I was privileged to walk.
Derrick Z. Jackson