Saying loud they’re black and proud

Jenice Armstrong - Guest Columnist

Jenice Armstrong

Jenice Armstrong

Beyonce’s black is showing … and so is President Obama’s.

That may come as a shocker to some folks — hence the hilarious Saturday Night Live skit earlier this month parodying America’s surprise at seeing the blonde-tressed singer showcase her African American roots during her controversial halftime at the Super Bowl.

You may recall how she purportedly paid homage to the Black Panthers and Malcolm X. Hot-sauce-in-her-bag swag, indeed. I’m reminded of her boldness as I watch the president make what ostensibly is a White House victory loop as his second term winds down.

I get the sense he’s loosening his tie a bit and dropping some of his middle-of-the-road blandness and — dare I say — standing even more firmly in his blackness as he not only presses for criminal justice reforms but also drops some “g’s” and throws in a few more colloquialisms.

It’s not all the time but when the mood strikes, such as earlier this month when he jokingly told White House visitors, “You know it is Black History Month when you hear somebody say, ‘Hey Michelle! Girrrl, you look so good.” I mean, really. A sitting president dragging out his R’s like one of the reality TV co-stars on Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Atlanta?

We’ve seen glimpses of his black swag before, such as that time he brushed his jacket as Jay-Z’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” played during a 2008 campaign speech or the time he gave wife Michelle a fist bump before beginning a speech.

But lately, even programming at the White House has been more there of late. Earlier this month, first lady Michelle Obama hosted an African dance workshop at the White House as part of Black History Month. Mind you, these weren’t pros. They were students from Washington, invited to the White House for a special lesson taught by Debbie Allen and other dance luminaries.

Watching all those young black bodies showing off their African dance skills inside an edifice built in part by unpaid slave labor, I couldn’t help but reflect on how aghast some of Michelle’s slave-owning first-lady forebearers would have been at the sight of all of that gyrating. While there was classical training that day, the students were taught a little hip-hop, as well. It wasn’t all that long ago that that would have been considered unseemly, not to mention just not done at a place like that at all.

My hands-down favorite black moment of late was the recent viral video of Obama welcoming a 106-year-old African American woman into the White House. In it, Virginia McLaurin is so overjoyed to meet the president that she breaks into a little dance with him and the first lady. Her joy is infectious.

“A black president!” the centenarian McLaurin proclaims before turning and looking at first lady Michelle Obama. “A black wife!”

For the briefest of moments, the elderly woman with the Langston Hughes-esque “I’ve Known Rivers” face pauses and lets the enormity of the moment sink in — more than 200 years of African American struggle in America.

It’s a poignant moment, especially when you consider that McLaurin wasn’t born that long after slavery was abolished. She lived decades before she even was able to see African Americans vote en masse.

I can only imagine the horrors McLaurin must have experienced as a young, impoverished girl picking cotton and tobacco as she worked the fields in Jim Crow South Carolina. It wasn’t as if people in her situation got much schooling.

Seeing the video of her standing in the Blue Room of the White House, it was if she became a stand-in for grandmothers and grandfathers everywhere who died only dreaming of a moment such as the one McLaurin lived long enough to experience. She looked at Obama as if he were her son and at Michelle as if she were her daughter.

Judging from their body language, Obama and the first lady recognized the significance of that. That’s why when that tiny lady in electric blue came dancing into the room, they bounced along with her a bit before slipping completely back into the formal kind of conduct one expects of the residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

By then, though, we had peeked behind the proverbial mask of which the great poet Paul Laurence Dunbar so famously once wrote.


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Jenice Armstrong Armstrong

Jenice Armstrong Armstrong

Jenice Armstrong

Guest Columnist

[email protected]; 215-854-2223

[email protected]; 215-854-2223

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