When Obama became family

President Barack Obama had been in office for more than three months by the time I hung his portrait in my home.

Mounted in a simple matte black frame, the laminated picture stretches about the length of one of my arms. It hangs on a wall in my dining room, the main gathering spot of my house. And from that wall, Obama’s wide grin, his beaming face, greets every visitor who walks through my front door.


He’s wearing a dark navy suit and red striped tie and standing on a stage at Grant Park the night he was elected president in 2008. His smile is infectious. His face is glowing, and the red, white and blue of American flags wave in the background.

At the time, it seemed instinctive to place a portrait of the first African-American president on my wall. In his face, I saw a reflection of my own proud heritage. It was how I linked his personal journey to my own.


Like Obama, I grew up in a single-parent home. I had the audacity to have big dreams and to hope. I landed on the South Side, as Obama did, when I moved to Chicago from New Orleans. I could see so many parts of myself in his story.

As Obama’s tenure comes to an end, I see with fresh eyes that the decision to adorn my wall with his image was loaded with meaning.

In my modest apartment, I have framed pictures of my family members lining the mantel and leaning along the bookshelves.

Only Obama has a sacred place on the wall.

The artwork, posters and portraits we hang on our walls give a window into our identity — how we see ourselves and what and whom we value.

I can’t help but think that those images also confirm for us what we can be — what we strive for.

Working as a journalist in Chicago, I’ve gone inside dozens of families’ homes — visiting them for interviews, learning about their lives and sometimes sitting with them during their most tragic moments. In past years, it never surprised me to see a framed picture of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. peeking out from among family heirlooms.

In recent years, I’ve noticed that instead of King, there is Obama. I think that’s because for many of us, Obama became the symbolic manifestation of King’s dream. Obama made us believe, for a moment, that character could come before color.


In each home the Obama portrait is different. Sometimes it’s just a photo of his face, cropped in tight by a gold or silver-colored frame. Other times it’s the official Obama family portrait, glossy and affixed to the wall with tape or tucked into the frame of another piece on the wall.

Obama’s image loomed in the background as families recounted to me stories about their children being stripped of sports honors. He’s been there as fathers spoke about lovingly parenting their daughters even as they live outside the home. And the president was also there, as families gathered to celebrate their teenagers going off to prom.

I can’t really claim a personal connection to Obama. I don’t actually know him.

It’s my relationship to the portrait that holds all the meaning.

With that portrait, Obama has been there in some of the definitive moments of my own life. Like a proud father, he was there when I earned my first promotion at work. Like a supportive uncle, he was there when I won a prestigious journalism honor. Like a protective older brother, he stood watch as I cried about a gut-wrenching, disappointing breakup.

Through the portrait, he was there as I stressed about car repairs, gossiped to my girlfriends and gathered around the table for boozy brunches with chicken, waffles and hash brown casseroles.


It took me three months to select the portrait I wanted for my wall and to get it framed and hung.

I selected that particular photo because it was the highest point for him and I wanted to remember it. It was a high point for African-Americans, and a high point for our country, and I wanted to remember that too.

That photo was taken on a warm fall night when Chicago was drowning in unbelievable pride. Elders danced in the street, and people walked down North Michigan Avenue offering strangers hugs and high-fives.

In the photo, his right hand reaches toward the crowd, the way you’d extend your hand for a friend to hold.

When I first hung the portrait, I would stop and examine it, absorbing its newness.

But after a while, Obama just blended in, like family.


I guess there’s a reason I have felt a connection to this man I don’t even know.

His arrival was my arrival too.

With his election, I saw the chance to be included. It felt like even as a black woman, I could be welcomed in, and offered a seat at the dinner table.

And when I mounted his image in my dining room, I was offering President Barack Obama a seat at mine.

Lolly Bowean is a Tribune reporter. She is presently a fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, where she is studying the evolution of the black family in America.

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