This week marked the unveiling of the official portraits of former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. It was wonderful timing in a month to honor African American history, to remember this historic president as the first African American U.S. president. But let me make it even more clear and more broad: Obama was the first non-white President, someone that most people of color identified with and loved.

Other historic points: Both portraits were by African American artists, the first to be given such commissions. Kehinde Wiley painted the President, and Amy Sherald depicted the First Lady. The portraits will hang in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. (Images available on CNN link below.)

These were consequential events, an intersection of art and history, for all Americans.

CNN reported:

The former first lady said she was thinking about the impact Sherald’s work will have on “girls and girls of color.”
“They will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the walls of this great American institution … And I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives because I was one of those girls,” she said.

The unveiling also was a powerful reminder of the dignity and humanity that we expect in our presidents and that Barack Obama exemplifies. By selecting these

Barack_Obama_2009-10-26artists, he and Michelle were making a thoughtful statement about who we are, about our talents and gifts, about race in America.

While words are important, wise leaders know their actions speak louder than words.

Note: Netflix is featuring a 2017 interview of Obama by David Letterman. It offers an oasis of calm and wit from the current chaos in our nation’s capital. Another reminder of presidential.



Terracotta Warriors of Ancient China

This summer we in Seattle have been fortunate to see the touring exhibit of the Terra-cotta Warriors of China’s first emperor. Archeologists are still excavating the site in Xi’an, China, where thousands more are still buried. So far approximately 2,000 of these clay soldiers have been discovered and reassembled. There could be 8,000 more plus life-size horses, chariots, and weapons.

They were produced more than 2,000 years ago to ensure the protection and power of Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di in the afterlife. This emperor had the power and wealth to furnish his tomb with whatever he desired for the next life. It’s a testament to human ingenuity and craftsmanship. The exhibit at the Pacific Science Center displays only a fraction of the unearthed artifacts. One display features an assembly line of laborers forming the clay, using   molds for various parts of the body, attaching the pieces, individualizing the heads, then carrying the finished product to the fire pit.

terracotta warriors1

The numbers are impressive, not just the quantity of these soldiers and generals produced, but their individual faces and the immaculate detail of their armor, hair, and headgear that mirror the military dress requirements of those times. I wonder whose faces they replicated. Did they use their own and their fellow laborers? Their family members? We will probably never know.

Archeologists have confirmed that these warriors once were painted in brilliant colors, which have since disintegrated. Finding this army was astounding enough, but then the discovery of the rich details provided for each soldier confirms that no expense was spared to meet the emperor’s requirements.

Indeed, how many laborers would it have taken to construct this memorial site, dig the pits for the army to stand in, produce the materials for these warriors and other bronze artifacts, craft everything, and house and feed everyone? The untouched tomb itself probably holds incredible riches. Experts estimate it took ten years and over 700,000 laborers to complete.

As a writer, I want the untold stories of these laborers, presumably slaves. However, these likely would not be happy stories. Just as it’s not likely there were any records kept that might have survived or that any of these laborers might have been literate and kept some kind of diary. Was there great suffering? Did the laborers experience moments of pride, even awe, in being involved in such a grand project, something never done before? Did the laborers even know this project was for the emperor?

What we know is that after years of hard labor, everyone working on the site was killed to safeguard the location and all that it contained. They were exterminated and buried in mass graves.

The exhibit was worth seeing. However, lurking below the magnificence and wonder of it all, we find once again the very real human cost of grandiose achievements. The best and worst of humanity is on display with China’s Terracotta Warriors.