December 20, 2012

TIME's Obama "Person of the Year" Cover – A Triumph of Assimilation?

My first instinct was to be bowled over by the classic quality of this cover and photo. After all, hadn’t Obama just triumphed, once again, as a political warrior? And, hadn’t he guided America, if on a center-right course, past the worst of two wars and a financial depression? What feels odd about this treatment, however, is how much it feels like a love offering to the legacy watch. Given that TIME’s selection was inspired by Obama’s role as a cultural figure, it’s odd the visual treatment seems to be more about gravitas than anything else. What in this photo anchors him to the particular shifts in the culture? Rather than pegging him to the now, doesn’t this feel more like the study for a statue. With the white light bordering his face combined with the truly striking grey-silver border, it feels more like someone’s about to be emblazoned on a quarter.

But then, is there more here than Obama getting tuned up for Rushmore? or Obama chiseled like Lincoln? Is it possible this image actually does ground Obama in 2011 and 2012, and all those things TIME says this selection is inspired by, including gay rights and women’s rights and youth and immigration. Curiously enough, the final paragraph of TIME’s write-up about Obama’s selection — curious because Obama’s race has been little more than a whisper — draws from the novel “Invisible Man.”

“At the end of Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison’s great 1952 novel about racial injustice, the central character says, “America is woven of many strands; I would recognize them and let it so remain … Our fate is to become one, and yet many — This is not prophecy, but description.” Just 12 years ago, Obama was so invisible that he attended the 2000 Democratic National Convention in L.A. and watched it on the Jumbotron in the Staples Center parking lot. Today he is universally visible — and known. But he would agree with Ellison’s observation that this change is indeed description and not prophecy. The new America is not so much the old e pluribus unum — out of many, one — but, as Ellison says, one and yet many. That is Obama’s America.”

I don’t mean this to sound critical whatsoever, but what I’m wondering then is if the statement and the photo, Obama truly dark but metamorphosing from black to silver, is (for gays and women and Dreamers, too) about a triumph of assimilation.

(photo: Nadav Kander for TIME)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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