close looks

Print, Frame, and Hang This Image in the National Portrait Gallery

Adam Christian Johnson walks through the Capitol rotunda with Nancy Pelosi’s podium under his arm. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

This past April, my father died of a virus that is killing Black people in crazy numbers. In May, I watched a cop murder a Black man on-camera. But on Wednesday, I saw something that brought me joy: a picture of a white guy roaming the halls of Congress with Nancy Pelosi’s podium stashed under his arm, grinning like he just scored the last Playstation 5 at Best Buy.

Most of my white friends were upset by this image. Throughout the day, they filled my feed with denunciations of white supremacy and solemn pronouncements on the state of our democracy. My Black friends? We hadn’t had this much fun since Jadakiss did his drunk dance on Verzuz.

The picture, taken by Win McNamee of Getty Images, has circulated widely and generated many silly memes. In an Instagram Story by Jamie Foxx, the intruder is saying “Hi, mom! I made it!” I liked that one, but I prefer to think of him saying “Hi, mon,” like a member of the Jamaican bobsled team. Like all great photographs, the image fires the imagination. I believe it should be printed, framed, and hung in the National Portrait Gallery. In the background, you can see an enormous painting of George Washington displayed in a pompous gold frame. That’s the America white people think we live in — a beacon of democracy, a paragon of dignity. But the photograph itself is the America Black people know. An America where ignorant white people walk off with your shit and smile about it, secure in the knowledge that nothing bad will happen to them. An America built on the theft of labor, land, and life.

On Wednesday, Joe Biden insisted that the ridiculous and violent scene playing out at the Capitol was “not who we are.” Maybe that’s his truth, but it isn’t mine. When I was 15, I was arrested for a nonviolent drug offense. Thanks to Biden and the racist crime bill he sponsored back in 1994, the judge was required to take away my freedom. Like most of us, I ended up voting for Biden anyway, because if you’re Black in America, freedom is the right to choose your oppressor. This week, I figured I’d have to endure a day or two of white people talking about how the fabric of our union is strong. Then the barbarians arrived. They knocked over barriers, scaled the walls, put their boots up on Pelosi’s desk, posed for selfies with cops, got blazed in a senator’s office, and smeared their shit — their actual shit — in the hallways. They caused the world’s most powerful people to cower in the basement. They smashed in the windows like the bad guys breaking into Kevin McCallister’s mansion in Home Alone.

A lot of remarkable photographs emerged from the mayhem, but the Getty Image of my homie Getty, as some of us have taken to calling him, is special. If his hat didn’t say “45,” you might think he’d gone to the Capitol because he wanted to witness Biden’s confirmation. He’s got practical Asics. Skinny jeans. Golden surfer hair and a scarf. His smile is friendly, free of worry, content. It isn’t the bitter grimace of those “bad” white people — the deplorables I’m supposed to fear. It’s the carefree smile of the dad at the farmers’ market who doesn’t realize he just ran over my shoes with a stroller. It’s the smile of the dude who moved into my building and says he loves the neighborhood because it’s so culturally vibrant but is unaware that he’s living in an apartment my grandma could no longer afford. It’s Biden telling a group of Black leaders last month that he’s the “only white boy” who has stood up against white supremacy. It’s a face I know well, the face of unearned power, and it belongs to white people in both political parties.

As it turns out, that face has a name: Adam Christian Johnson. Records indicate he was arrested for a nonviolent drug offense when he was a teenager, just like I was, and got locked up again a year later for violating his probation. But things seem to have worked out well for him. He lives in a six-bedroom house on a golf course in southwest Florida with his wife, a family physician. According to the Bradenton Herald, he studied psychology at the University of South Florida and now makes and sells furniture, which may explain why he was so excited about his find. Over 300,000 Americans are dead from the coronavirus, unemployment is soaring, and this guy looks like he just secured a bag on Antiques Roadshow.

As someone who has survived violence, I’m not happy that five people died at the riot. But I can’t deny that this picture of Mr. Johnson gives me life. It reminds me of another classic American image — a white man dressed in blackface, flanked by velvet curtains with fancy gold trim. Do a Google image search for “the original Jim Crow,” and you’ll see it. Note the bugged-out eyes, the mindless grin, the hand held out in a cheerful wave. For years, white people portrayed us as happy, vulgar fools undeserving of the rights and dignity America supposedly represented to the world. Now the greasepaint has been wiped away, and white people are seeing that they are what they’ve always made us out to be. Some are embarrassed. Some are scared. It’s our turn to be entertained.

Illustration: Wikimedia Commons
Hang This Image in the National Portrait Gallery