Jackie Calmes of the New York Times tells the story today of my all-time favorite presidential photo. The first time I saw it was while walking through the West Wing to a meeting three years ago. A little black boy touching the head of President Obama. The image was so powerful I stopped in my tracks and inquired about the story behind the photo. As Calmes reports, Jacob Philadelphia had a question for the president of the United States.
“I want to know if my hair is just like yours,” he told Mr. Obama, so quietly that the president asked him to speak again.
Jacob did, and Mr. Obama replied, “Why don’t you touch it and see for yourself?” He brought his head level with Jacob, who hesitated.
“Touch it, dude!” Mr. Obama said.
“So, what do you think?” Mr. Obama asked.
“Yes, it does feel the same,” Jacob said.
Thanks to the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, we African Americans are sensitive about our heads and our hair. A pat on the head, especially from someone white, would be patronizing at best. “Don’t let anybody touch your head,” my mother told me when we moved from Newark to a predominantly white town in New Jersey. I would learn at school that some would rub the head of someone black for good luck. And there were all sorts of put-downs for black hair — from Brillo to something not appropriate to mention in a family forum such as this. Thus, having your head touched is a rather intimate gesture that only family could get away with.
For Jacob, asking Obama about his hair was clearly about establishing a connection, about confirming that the powerful person who looks like him is really like him in so many ways. As Obama adviser David Axelrod told Calmes, “Really, what he was saying is, ‘Gee, you’re just like me.’ And it doesn’t take a big leap to think that child could be thinking, ‘Maybe I could be here someday.’”
The power of that photo taken by White House photographer Pete Souza had those two elements for me. A black man allowing his head to be touched by a stranger. But not just any stranger. A child seeking a familiar link between himself and the black man, who also happens to be the leader of the free world. Still, I don’t think I can ever articulate everything the Souza photo says to me.
Obama gets a bum rap for not talking more openly about race. What his critics don’t get — and what the Souza photo perfectly illustrates — is that the president addresses so much about race without ever opening his mouth.