Bill Cosby, who has a lifetime eat-for-free deal at Ben’s Chili Bowl and is regarded by its staff as “family,” is not part of the new mural to replace the 2012 version that was painted over by Ben’s staff days after President Trump’s inauguration. Cosby’s absence is not a surprise, given the swelling public outcry over the sexual assault allegations for which he is now standing trial in Pennsylvania. Indeed, the Ali family, which owns and runs Ben’s, originally wanted to keep the 2012 mural and edit Cosby out, says Aniekan Udofia, the District’s self-described “most known unknown” artist behind both murals. But Cosby is not alone in the fumbling fracas that has tried to reassert and revitalize Washington’s African-American identity in the capital’s new, murky chapter after the nation’s first African-American presidency.
Poor Mystery Woman. She was cut from the 2012 mural in favor of Donnie Simpson, who joined Cosby, Barack Obama, and Chuck Brown. The four men were a kind of anti-Rushmore for an anti-Washington, finding dignity and joy outside of the stateliness or rank that lards so much life here. It wasn’t Udofia’s masterpiece—that would either be a Marvin Gaye portrait that was celebrated on Instagram’s global homepage or a Black Broadway tribute embedded with mirror dust so that it sparkles at night—but the 2012 mural was exceptional in that it attempted to give a mood to a cultural whirlwind not seen in the African-American community since the Harlem Renaissance.
While the Obama Administration was in office, NFL prospect Michael Sam, NBA player Jason Collins, CNN host Don Lemon, and rapper Frank Ocean all came out as gay. The White House lit up in rainbow colors to celebrate a Supreme Court ruling in favor of gay marriage. By the end of it, Eric Holder, the first African-American attorney general was openly weeping as he presided over the marriage of Jonathan Capehart to his husband.
But, oh, for the simplicity of a rainbow’s tidy arc. Instead, to wide bewilderment, Ben’s finger-in-every-pie voting process for the new mural offered a rain-blob that pretended to run a thread through Anthony Bourdain, Jimmy Fallon, and Prince. For a 59-year-old restaurant, it betrayed a chaotic sense of balance, flavor, ingredients, and spice. Harriet Tubman is about to be on the $20 bill; does the abolitionist who died half a century before Ben’s opened really need to be on its 2017 mural? Because she is.
The new mural includes Muhammad Ali, Marion Barry, Chuck Brown, Dave Chappelle, Roberta Flack, Dick Gregory, Taraji P. Henson, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Barack and Michelle Obama, Russ Parr, Prince, Donnie Simpson, Harriet Tubman, Jim Vance, and Wale.
Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks were scrubbed at the last minute. When the Ali family heard Vance had been diagnosed with cancer, they had pushed Udofia to include the WRC newscaster. If that advocacy and shuffling sounds like a strange way to process voting results, it’s because the Alis never gave up their final say over the mural. But “suggestion box” doesn’t have the dramatic ring to it that “online poll” does.
“This is the first time I’ve put my foot down,” says Udofia, “and said I’m not going to do a ‘Black History Month’ mural. The same faces we always see, the ones that are trapped in Black History Month. This is not a memorial. DC has enough memorials. This is a celebration of life, of the living, of the living history the Obamas brought us.”
Udofia’s artistic director Mia DuVall, who helped him put up an outline up on the wall from 8 PM Thursday until 6 AM Friday, agrees: “We want to give the roses to those who are alive and still here to smell them.”
Stylized in Udofia’s signature blend of comic-book adventurism with a college degree, the mural is called “The Torch” and shows Tubman holding a lantern that’s spreading light onto the other characters because “Tubman fought for the dream that the Obamas became,” said Udofia. He was quick to underline that the mural is more about community than celebrity. “Pretty much everyone there came from DC and did something amazing that nobody had ever seen before. It shows what DC can let you become,” he said.
When Ben Ali opened his restaurant in 1958, his wife, Virginia, asked him if it was wise to quit her job as a bank teller. What if the diner didn’t work out? “He told me,” she said recently, over a breakfast of salmon cakes, “We can build a shower in the back and bring a bed there. We can sell the car and the apartment. You can serve during the day and I’ll serve at night. It will work. We will make it work.” It worked. “And now? Now it’s news what we paint on our wall. Who ever would’ve guessed?”
By unlocking a new era in African-American culture, what the Obamas have done is bring into sharp relief how disparate and difficult African-American history is and how necessary it is to embrace that difficulty. “The Obamas taught us how to celebrate living history,” says Udofia. It’s a long leap from the original concept for the 2012 mural: a straightforward visual history of Ben’s, including the 1968 race riots, the rise of the Green Line, and ribbons of police tape. Washington has a bigger story to tell than its history.
Ben’s staff historian, Bernard Demczuk, who recently retired as George Washington University’s assistant vice president for District relations, added: “It’s not just a hot dog joint. It’s a community center. It’s a cultural cauldron. Ben’s strength is not Barack Obama or Denzel Washington. It’s longevity and generosity. Black, white. Young, old. Christian, Muslim. From Korea to Kalamazoo. It is, in fact, Dr. King’s concept of the Beloved Community.”