Francis pointed to the center of the painting, to a convincing likeness of the president: “That’s Will Smith, isn’t it?”
A suspicious silence fell over his black customers — was the white guy making fun or having fun? And then Francis smiled, they all cracked up, and three more Obama supporters bought a print.
On the day the nation witnessed the second swearing-in of the first black president, race mattered, as it has at every turn throughout American history. But blacks and whites along the Mall and the parade route, as well as others across the land, say it matters in different ways at the midpoint of this historic presidency.
Suspicions and animosities, stereotypes and fears, they’re all still there, but they’re more out in the open now, as if Obama’s presence in the White House has liberated some people to say what until now they felt constrained from speaking aloud. At times, those words have been healing in their candor or empathy; sometimes, they have been ugly, provoking pain or anger. But for an optimistic few in the crowd Monday, the mere fact that they are being said has kindled a fragile hope.
“Some of the people I work with, the truth came out of them since Obama came in. The ones that don’t like Obama, they say things about him that they wouldn’t say about a white president,” said Francine Jenkins, a black Washingtonian who works for the Social Security Administration and bought one of the prints.
Still, Jenkins says, “It’s a very slow process, but we’re getting there.”
Four years ago, blacks and whites alike allowed themselves to speak of a post-racial America in which Obama would inspire people of all races to be more accepting. But the president’s first term tempered such idealism.
On one side of the ledger, there has been an easing of tensions, as 93-year-old William Horne has discovered. As he pushed his walker slowly along Pennsylvania Avenue, a World War II veteran’s cap on his head, Horne, who came by bus from Columbus, Ga., said the past four years have brought a change that stands out even in a life that witnessed Jim Crow and the civil rights movement.
“I notice I get a lot more respect from different people,” he said. “I can be going shopping at the grocery store or Sam’s Club. A white person will see me coming and hold the door for me” — not because he’s elderly, he said, but because the tone of the country has changed.
“I think some people didn’t feel as though a black man was capable,” Horne said. “Since they find he is capable to take on responsibility, they give more respect to other black people as well.”