Exploring the Black Presidential Imaginary: An Interview with Ross Jordan


As Barack Obama’s presidency came to close in January, plans for the Obama Presidential Library and the Obama Foundation began circulating in the news. Ross Jordan, a Chicago-based curator, has been thinking about Obama’s legacy and the impact of a black presidency for the past several years.

Jordan’s Presidential Library Project began in 2015 as a series of “Beer Summits” at the Chicago Cultural Center. Inspired by Obama’s gesture in 2009 to invite both Henry Louis Gates and Sergeant James Crowley to the White House to discuss Gates’ arrest over a beer, Jordan brought together artists, art historians, curators and educators to talk about the potential for Obama’s presidential library and the symbol of a black president.

The latest iteration of Jordan’s project is a group exhibition at the Hyde Park Art Center featuring work by James Britt, Rashayla Brown, Aisha Cousins, Zachary Fabri, Lamont Hamilton, Billy McGuinness, Shonna Pryor, Deb Sokolow and Nate Young. The Presidential Library Project: Black Presidential Imaginary opens March 26 and is on view through July 2, 2017.

I recently sat down with Ross to ask him about the project and his interest in the intersection of art and politics. We discussed what a radical presidential library would look like, the origins of black independent political parties, and the history of popular culture depicting black presidents. Here are excerpts from our conversation, which have been edited and condensed.

Chicago Gallery News: How did the Presidential Library Project begin?

Ross Jordan: As I was thinking about Obama's last term ending, my own interest in politics and art, and presidential libraries and museums, it struck me that there’s fourteen presidential libraries but there are not a lot of artists involved with them. I thought what if artists, curators, and staff who work in museums, in archives and deal with history—what if they populate and produce the library instead of it being politically driven?

It was an open thought and the first step was: “How do I start to think about this and talk about that idea?” I said,  "What if produce an exhibition?” and then I could create the programs that might be at a presidential library, so I started organizing these Beer Summits. I had received funding from the Chicago Cultural Center’s curatorial residency program so I was able to host them there.

The idea of the Beer Summits was to take seriously that event early in Obama’s first term when Henry Louis Gates was arrested outside his house in Cambridge. Shortly after that happened Obama called people together and suggested that they needed to have a conversation and make it a nationwide learning moment. This was before Trayvon Martin and before the danger of police interacting with black men had been fully elevated to a national conversation.

The Beer Summit series was an opportunity to start the conversation about having a black president. The fascinating thing about Barack Obama as a black president is that he's a symbol more than any other president. The summits explored the idea of his image and the visualization of a black man and his black family in the White House.

The series was also a way to talk about presidential libraries–how they're structured and how they work—What is a presidential library? Why do they exist? The summits were part education, part research. What is a library—what does it do? What is an archive and what does it do? What is a museum and what can it do in relation to African American history, the political future of that history, and the design of architecture and space? But really I think the idea of the project came from my interest in politics and art and finding a way to mold to those together. 

CGN: Have you visited many presidential libraries?

RJ: No, I haven’t and few people have. I visited John F. Kennedy's library in Boston and outside of the Lincoln Memorial that is the one pilgrimage site for Americans who want to go to presidential libraries. It's one that’s close to a city center so it's easy to go to, and of course Kennedy was assassinated so it has a lot of residual power for Americans. Many presidential libraries are not in cities so they’re difficult to visit.

CGN: Like Lyndon B. Johnson’s library on a ranch outside of Austin, Texas, where he was born.

RJ: I would love to go out there.

CGN: What do you hope to see at Obama's presidential library?

RJ: I'm not super invested in what actually is there in terms of the details. The most interesting thing Obama could do, I think, is to make the whole catalogue of his archives entirely searchable, placed underground on computer servers, and then build cheap public housing on top of it. That would be an interesting library. Or he could leave Jackson Park alone, right? To leave the park alone would be the most radical thing to do. Or fund free schooling and pay for teachers’ pensions to work at schools on the South Side of Chicago. Those are interesting public ideas that would be worth raising money towards.

CGN: Versus preserving and shaping a legacy?

RJ: If Obama decided to build public housing then that would be shaping his legacy. If he decided to leave the park alone then that would be shaping his legacy, too. In terms of shaping legacy—those would be the most radical things.

What I’d hope to see is a way to have a library that's multi-narrative, that doesn't just have the perspective of his administration but also deals with the fact that we have a black president, who in the last year of this presidency had a very public protest movement called ‘Black Lives Matter.’ How do you account for those things? I would also like to see a real reckoning with the way the United States deals with war and how Obama authorized bombs and drone strikes without any legal trials. But I don't see those things happening. I’m less concerned with what’s inside the library and more concerned with what artists are dealing with. I want to elevate artists.

CGN: How did you select the artists that you’re working with at the Hyde Park Art Center exhibition?

RJ: These are all people I knew relatively well, and they've been talking about the subject for a few years. Aisha Cousins is one of the central artists in the exhibition because she's been thinking about Obama and his legacy as soon as he was elected. She’s the organizing principle to the show, but all the artists have varying perspectives.

One of the cool projects that Aisha Cousins does is called The Soulville Census, which is an alternative to the United States Census. It’s directed at African American populations and their relationships with the first family and being black. If you look at the census from 2010 there was space for African American, Negro, and Black. Those were the checkmark boxes for all people who identify as black. 

There was some pushback from folks, because people got these things and thought, "Negro? Who are those folks?" And it was because the census does research, and they went to different populations around the United States and asked people if 'Negro' was an appropriate word and enough people said, "Yes," that they put it on there. But by 2010 it felt outdated, right? And they only do it every ten years, but regardless, it's still a small population to describe folks who might be from the Caribbean, from Canada. It doesn't actually account for diverse population inside the African American population within the United States. The Soulville Census that Aisha Cousins has done in Brooklyn is meant to take that one category and spread it out. She asks aspiration questions like, “Do you describe Obama as black?” because he's actually mixed race. Or “How do you feel when you see Sasha and Malia’s hair braided with little twists in them?” They’re not quantitative, they're more qualitative questions about how people feel. And the idea is they elicit more than a census would.

Another key theme is prison populations. Obama was the first president to actually visit a federal prison. Billy McGuinness is working in the Cook County Jail and is taking photographs of artwork he’s made with inmates and we’ll display them in the gallery. This project has nothing to do explicitly with policy or Obama, but it references the fact that we have a large population of African American men in prisons. It's also a way to have that conversation without having to explicitly say things like, “In 2015 the Justice Department under Obama stopped using federal private prisons to hold federal prison populations.” I can say that but more interesting is there's still a large prison population, and here’s a way that these guys can be humanized.

CGN: Along with the work on display, are you organizing programming to accompany the exhibition?

RJ: Yes, there are three or four programs. Aisha Cousins has performance scores focused on Obama’s life so we will be producing one of those scores on May 21st at the official opening reception. The piece is called National Anthem. It’s two people singing the American national anthem and the black national anthem and alternating the stanzas. It’s a really simple way of culling up W.E.B. DuBois’s “twoness” of being torn asunder by competing narratives of black independent spirit and politics, and being an American imperial power—the feeling of wanting to be a part of and stand on the shoulders of the idea of American dream but also having a history that completely refutes the existence of that.

I’m also doing a program with Bruce Mouser on June 8. He’s a professor emeritus at University of Wisconsin-La Cross, and he’s doing research on two African Americans who ran for president during the 1904 election. They ran under the independent party called National Negro Liberty Party. There are two black men, George Edwin Taylor, who ultimately ran in the 1904 race, and then William Thomas Scott. Bruce has done a tremendous job pulling together research of these two little known characters.

Talking about black independent politics, if you look at the Obama t-shirts [that the artist Nate Young has collected and that will be included in the exhibition] usually you will see MLK, Kennedy, Obama or MLK, Malcolm X, Obama as part of tracing a legacy. But no one ever says George Edwin Taylor, William Thomas Scott, Carol Moseley Braun, Shirley Chisholm, and then Obama. And, of course, Carol Moseley Braun and Shirley Chisholm were black women who ran for president. And nationally! In a big way! But people don't actually know the history very well even though Shirley ran in 1972.

There is something about independent black politics versus institutional embedded politics that Obama had. Obama was not running as an independent black character, he was running as a Democrat, and he was able to win on that platform. Shirley Chisholm did run as a Democrat but she was “unbought and unbossed” and firebranded and pissed off a lot of people. She was very sharp and way ahead of her time so she didn't get picked up as easily, and she also faced pushback from people like Jesse Jackson and other black politicians of the time who were also trying to think about their own political futures.

The idea of a black president is not new, in fact we have been thinking about it for a long time. African Americans have been using the idea of a black president to build political power since 1904. The Civil War ended in 1877. There were civil rights bills that allowed African Americans to vote in 1871 and in 1882 leading up to the 1904 race. Not only were African Americans running in different offices in congress and school boards and whatnot all through the 1800s, but they were also being denied voting rights in various organizations throughout that entire time by the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. A lot of independent black politics is about choosing a side or running independently. 

It’s important to hear from Bruce Mouser about Taylor and Scott who in 1904 were making a choice: Do we stick with the Republicans, which is the party of Abraham Lincoln and the party that gained our vote because they had some sympathies towards the plight of enslaved Africans? Or do we break away because those same Republicans, given their history were also not pushing back against Southern Democrats and what became the Jim Crow Laws? Bruce speaks to the story of these two men who decided that they were going to take the path of independent politics and create their own party.

In the exhibition, there will also be videos of popular culture images of black presidents by Zachary Fabri. For example, there’s a really great film called Rufus Jones for President starring Sammy Davis Junior and Ethel Waters. It was made in 1933 and is super racist but it was one of the first films with an all black cast, which was a big deal. In the film, Sammy Davis Jr. is a seven-year-old boy who falls asleep in Ethel Waters’ arms and dreams that he becomes president. The idea of having a black president isn't something that is new, its been actually gamed out over a long period of time.

CGN: Zachary Fabri has been collecting these images and films?

RJ: Yes, he’s collected them. I think the earliest film is Rufus Jones for President. The idea of the black president precedes itself. Obama was preceded by these different ideas and versions. There is a reality and also a myth, and Obama's presidency was a weird experience of living for eight years through this mythical thing that no one expected, but of course has been really one of the most anticipated political presidents in the history of the country. It’s been played out in movies, films and music for years. When you think about the history, it’s not that surprising.

The Presidential Library Project: Black Presidential Imaginary opens Sunday, March 26 at the Hyde Park Art Center and is on view through July 2, 2017. The exhibition is curated by Ross Jordan, who is currently Curatorial Manager at the Jane Addams Hull House Museum. 

Top image: Zachary Fabri, Aureola (Black Presidents), set of 9, 2012, digital C prints, 20" x 30"