Faces of change on the front page

When I was growing up in Shreveport, La., during the 1950s, the white-owned morning newspaper did not publish photographs of black people. We were invisible. You might have heard about Martin Luther King Jr., but if all you read was the local rag, you'd think he was just a faceless, communist "Negro."

Such memories have been stirred by the recent run on post-Election Day newspapers across the country. Even in Shreveport, headlines hail history being made, beneath which are some of the largest, most beautiful color photographs of a black family ever published in a newspaper.

Call it another "Obama tsunami" moment, in which the election of Barack Obama as the nation's first black president produces one mind-blowing wave of emotion after another. For me, nothing has been more breathtaking so far than the new image of the black family that the Obamas have brought to the fore.

"They want that front page," said my dad, 84, referring to an ongoing clamor among black people in Shreveport for more copies of the once rabidly segregationist Shreveport Times.

The banner headline on Wednesday's edition read "Change Is Here," and the rest of the page was nearly taken up by a color photograph of the Obamas, American flags flying in the background.

Some of my neighbors in Fort Washington, Md., waited in line for a copy of The Washington Post longer than they had waited in line to vote. When they finally got their hands on one, the first thing many of them did was stop and stare at the photos.

"Aren't these the most beautiful girls," Earlene Harris, 23, a cosmetology student, said of the Obama children. Her friend Maude Fitzgerald, also a student, said in giddy disbelief: "Am I dreaming, or are they really going to live in the White House?"

Even though the Obama family represents a black middle-class norm, such images have been all but absent in newspaper portrayals. Black families have either been ignored by the media or portrayed as dysfunctional breeders of crime and poverty.

And when a successful, intact, productive black family was in the spotlight, they were most likely media fictions created to entertain, such as Bill Cosby's Huxtables or the brood belonging to Tyler Perry's popular matriarch Madea.

Now we've got the real thing out front and on center stage: a black first family.

Of course, my hometown newspaper didn't just start publishing photographs of black people. That's been happening for years now, and they include the usual black athletes, black politicians and black preachers.

But let's face it: The black person whose face is most likely to show up in an urban newspaper these days has either been charged with a crime or convicted of one. The result has been an egregious distortion of the black male image.

As one newspaper reader mused while admiring an Obama family photo, "I wonder if Obama would have been elected if he had two teenage boys instead of two little girls?"

Obama himself — articulate, well groomed, easygoing — might offer the most powerful antidote yet to the widespread misperception of black men.

For now, though, I'm just trying to get my head around the idea of Obama as the nation's first black president — happy to have a newspaper to consult for visual, tactile and dated proof whenever disbelief calls for a double take.

By Courtland Milloy

The Washington Post

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