How President Obama “speaks” about race

The New York Times finally tells the story of my favorite picture from Obama’s presidency.  The now famous photo is of five-year-old Jacob Philadelphia, the son of a White House staffer who was leaving his post on the National Security Council.  The photo is displayed in the West Wing and has remained there for three years, even as others are replaced by more recent photos on the walls around it.

Via The White House/Pete Souza

In their re-telling of the story, Jacob’s dad and his family were leaving after taking a group picture with President Obama in the Oval Office, he tells the President his son has a question:

“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 lowered his head, level with Jacob, who hesitated.

“Touch it, dude!” Mr. Obama said.

As Jacob patted the presidential crown, Mr. Souza snapped.

“So, what do you think?” Mr. Obama asked.

“Yes, it does feel the same,” Jacob said.

The White House photographer snapped the shot hastily, and admits that he didn’t have the best angle and that some of the photo is out of focus.  But the deep meaning of the photograph remains: the nation’s first black president is demonstrating to a little black boy that yes, I am just like you.  Jacob’s father says that, “It’s important for black children to see a black man as president. You can believe that any position is possible to achieve if you see a black person in it.”

For all the unfair criticism that President Obama gets from the right for “playing the race card,” and from some in the black community who feel he doesn’t directly address race enough, the president somehow manages to make such profound statements about race. And he does it without having to make a speech or label his policies “The black agenda.”

As the first black president, Obama has to very delicately address issues of race, and he seems to have found that doing so without having to explicitly label it is sometimes the most powerful and memorable way.  The photo of Jacob is meaningful to so many people because in many ways, it reflects a new era.  If I have a son one day, when he says, “I want to be president,” I can show him this picture and say, “Yes you can.”  And of course, I look forward to the day when I will be able to say the same thing to my daughter as well.

 

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