By Steven Barboza
History’s most watched first family is transforming the White House even as it transforms them.
The Obamas live in a house that is as much a national shrine as it is a home. They reside there because, as President Obama once said, “Change has come to America.”
But whether he’s in the Oval Office, the East Room, or the family quarters, Obama walks in the footsteps of numerous African Americans. Black people had a hand in building the White House, staffing it, even living in it. In fact, other than the Presidents’ families, African Americans are the only people who actually lived there.
The house has an indelible history of black service by slaves, servants, cooks, butlers, ushers and secret service agents. In the scheme of world events, their stories may be trivial, but their presence through the ages makes it clear that the palest thing about the White House is its paint job.
“The White House has always reflected the paradoxes, contradictions, conflicts that have existed in the country as a whole,” said Clarence Lusane, author of “The Black History of the White House” and an associate professor of political science at American University.
“While we have always thought of it as the iconic embodiment of American democracy and American freedom, in fact it embodies both freedom and slavery, democracy and undemocratic practices that have impacted on the people of this country. Those of us who grew up here and were taught American history, we were never given that kind of broader perspective that perhaps the White House as a symbol may embody some contradictions.”
Though President Obama governs as a 21st century leader, he lives in a building fraught with 18th century symbolism. The irony is so striking that Michelle Obama, the great-great-granddaughter of slaves, has been known to say, “I’m not supposed to be here.”
That didn’t stop her from moving in with her support system (her mother), and fortifying her family with friends in the East and West Wings. Now it seems that the White House was a natural next step for the Obamas.
Their being there makes for fascinating history-in-the-making. The Obamas surely must be the most watched first family since the Kennedys, and for good reason: the transformations, both of the house and of its occupants, are compelling.
Michelle Obama, caricatured as a hotheaded black woman during the presidential campaign, has mellowed in the public imagination. She’s now considered a doting mother, a loving wife, and a compassionate and dynamic First Lady. She’s even been called the “hugger in chief.” On the day she moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, she greeted 376 visitors and hugged 66 of them, about 18 percent, according to one report.
Today, she’s a favorite guest on TV talk shows. She has played basketball in a Disney Channel commercial, graced the covers of magazines, and put American fashion back on the map (though at least one top designer complained when she wore a sweater to Buckingham Palace). It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise then that Maxim ranked her at No. 93 in its list of the world’s 100 hottest women, a very respectable showing for a First Lady.