Reading The Pictures: <i>Michelle Takes It To Slave-Owning Jefferson In Official WH Portrait</i>

Although the picture swirled around the 'nets last Friday, not many noticed the race angle.
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Props to my readers for calling out the irony of Michelle Obama using her official White House portrait to pose with the former slave-owning Thomas Jefferson. If it was clever of the First Lady, it was apparently also quite subtle. Although the picture swirled around the 'nets last Friday, not many noticed the race angle.

Here were two comments readers sent to me:

... The portrait of the old, dead, white guy in the background is funny. The Great White Man theory of history laid to rest? OR: Is that a slave-owning president? Jefferson? Looking over the Obama's shoulders? Also a funny visual. Possessively touching the table: we're here, we earned it. (Ryan)

...That portrait on the wall behind her, that's Thomas Jefferson, isn't it? Someone on MSNBC said it was James Madison, heard that shortly after I'd pegged it for Jefferson, and started looking around for pics of Madison. He was bald on top, and the subject of the pic clearly is not. I say it's Jefferson, and find dense ambiguity of such a choice fetching. Liberal intelligence embraces ambiguity, thrives on the challenge. After the simple-mindedness of the Bush years, the Obamas feel like fresh air. Smart is in. (Jeanie)

By the way, if anyone thinks this choice of background could have been coincidental, the fact that MO is posing with Jefferson would be virtually inescapable to her (and might explain the rest of the composition, especially her awkward orientation to the drapes.) A week-and-a-half ago, for example, in one of her first public events, Mrs. Obama hosted an event for grade school children in the East Room.

Here's a snip from the Detroit Free Press article:

Foot-stomping music filled the East Room of the White House today as first lady Michelle Obama hosted nearly 200 schoolchildren for a Black History Month celebration featuring Sweet Honey in the Rock, an award-winning female a cappella ensemble.

Obama seemed a bit surprised when the sixth- and seventh-graders from three local schools said yes, they knew slaves helped build the White House, that President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation upstairs in a bedroom named for him, and that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders met in the building with Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson to discuss the end of segregation.

"So you guys know your history. That's a good thing," she said. "That means your parents and teachers are doing their jobs."

Besides keying us to the fact Mrs. Obama is thoroughly aware of the racial history and "topography" of the house she's living in, she also implies -- as "First Mom" -- it's part of her job to clue us as well.

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(photo: Joyce Boghosian/White House)

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