Democracy Dies in Darkness

The Fix

This photo of Obama and a little visitor at a Black History Month celebration is remarkable

By Janell Ross

February 20, 2016 at 8:00 AM

For 3-year-old Clark Reynolds, Thursday began like most others.

Morning preparations gave way to hours at school and then a visit to his mother's office to change into a suit and tie. Clark's mother, Nichole Francis Reynolds, is a former congressional staffer who now works in the private sector. Friends had secured an invitation for Francis Reynolds and her son to the White House's Black History Month celebration, the final gathering of its kind while the first black president remains in office. But Francis Reynolds had told Clark only that he had earned a special treat. He is, after all, only 3.

What Clark does know is the president's name, his face when he sees Obama on TV and the sound of President Obama's voice when it comes through the satellite radio in his dad's car. Then, there's Clark's favorite book, the one that he almost always picks when it's reading time. Clark has been through the "The White House Pop-Up Book" by Chuck Fischer so many times that, almost as soon as Clark and his mother walked onto the White House grounds Thursday, Clark knew where they were.

He was excited. And once inside, he was in open awe. This, as Clark put it, is where the president lives. He met Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). Someone snapped a photo of Clark and the first lady. Somehow, Clark made his way to the front of the a rope line as President Obama worked his way across the room. Then, Obama noticed Clark, too, touched Clark's cheek and bent down to exchange words while he straightened Clark's tie.

As we near the end of President Obama's second and final term, it can be hard to remember what the picture of Clark above -- snapped this week by Pete Souza, chief official White House photographer -- so ably captured.

Most of us are by now aware that Obama's election was never the evidence of an entirely new and different America. It was never the proof that race had ceased to matter in elections or so many other aspects of American life. And, the notion of the central role white voters played in putting the nation's first black president in office was so often and casually repeated that larger and more accurate truths about American life were obscured.

What remains in the inevitably imperfect residue of the Obama years is this thing, visible to even the most jaundiced of political eyes, in the face of a boy who visited the White House for the first time Thursday.

Whatever the Obama administration's victories and defeats, its achievements and its failures -- and those that remain to come -- one look at this little boy standing behind a White House rope line, shirttails un-tucked, jacket buttoned and tie somehow looped over said rope, really makes one thing clear: Our collective notion of what is feasible in the United States forever changed between February 2008 and February 2016.

The look in Clark's eyes offers one half of America's current story. A country once determined to import and enslave black Americans is now, indeed, led by one. That is a transformation so profound and complex that when another young black child, Jacob Philadelphia, visited the White House in 2009 and asked the then-new president if they have the same hair. Obama bent down and advised Jacob to find out. The answer -- yes -- said much more to Jacob, the millions of Americans who have seen the Souza photo of that moment since. It said, I am like you. You are like me. The most powerful elected office in the world is mine and is truly possible for all of us. Obama reportedly gave the photo a permanent and special home in the White House.

[What it was like to walk in the shoes of America's slaves]

But then, there is Obama's tender touch on Clark's cheek this week. It is another remarkably familiar gesture between strangers which also reveals something deep and true. It speaks to the other half of America's current story. Obama is our president. Still, this remains a country where children who look like Clark, but are perhaps a decade older, are widely regarded as a menace. They are to be feared and contained. Obama's touch says, this child is precious and valuable because of who he is and what he can become. But when Obama said as much -- telling reporters in 2012 that if he had a son, that son would look like Trayvon Martin -- a good portion of America reacted as if that reminder was itself an extreme affront.

On Thursday, before Clark left the White House, President Obama inscribed Clark's favorite book. Clark's mother brought it along. The inscription reads: "To Clark -- Dream big dreams! Barack Obama."


Janell Ross covers race along with the social and political implications of the nation's rapidly changing demographics. Janell's Emerging America beat is part of the Washington Post's National Desk.

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