Leaning In to History

This Pete Souza photograph of President Obama and 5-year-old Jacob Philadelphia has been making its rounds in the news lately. Philadelphia’s father, Carlton, a former Marine, was visiting the Oval Office with his family after being granted a courtesy common to departing staff members. Interceding for his family, Mr. Philadelphia told the President that his sons each had a question for him. Jacob goes first and softly asks the president if his hair is like his. The president leans in and says to Jacob, “Why don’t you touch it and see for yourself?” It’s an affecting story.

I wonder what Jacob thought about his own hair. I wonder why he questioned the feel of the president’s hair. I know my own three-year-old son doesn’t enjoy getting his hair cut–at all–but he hasn’t yet formed an identity involving his hair. So I wonder what happens in the space of those two years for little black boys to begin contemplating their hair texture. President Obama followed-up with Jacob and Jacob confirmed that “Yes, it does feel the same.” I wonder what that did for him.

When I saw the Souza photograph most recently, I was reminded of the 1958 Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph by William C. Beall entitled “Faith and Confidence.” Beall was on assignment for the

Beall’s photograph from September 10, 1957 won a Pulitzer Prize for photography in 1958.

Washington Daily News (September 10, 1957) when he captured police officer Maurice Cullinane cautioning a two-year-old boy, Allen Weaver, who had stepped into the street where the Chinese Merchants Association parade was occurring. Much of what I read about the photograph suggests that its power comes from its suggestion of “childhood innocence.”

1957 is a lyric year in American history that saw black artists boldly respond to violence meeting black children in the South, particularly in Little Rock, Arkansas. In 1957, Louis Armstrong canceled his tour of the Soviet Union to protest Governor Faubus’s racist intransigence over school desegregation and the general humiliations and routine indignities of white supremacist hatred in the Jim Crow South. And though it was recorded two years after the Little Rock Nine’s desegregation efforts, jazz bassist Charles Mingus also penned “Fables of Faubus” as an explicit protest song against Arkansas Governor Orval E. Faubus who called upon the National Guard to block the integration of Little Rock High School. Its original release did not include the scathing lyrics that would accompany the song as it was recorded in 1960. Indeed, the governmental response to black children in 1957 was far more martial than innocent.

The Beall photograph has charm. Weaver looks enchanted by this big, authoritative man who makes himself small for the child. It is certainly a persistent wish of the nation that it looked this charming in the 1950s. But the claim to happy days ignores this image from September 1957:

Elizabeth Eckford surrounded by a hostile crowd that includes the jeering Hazel Bryan on September 4, 1957.

Will Counts, the photographer for the Arkansas Democrat, captures Elizabeth Eckford within a broad expanse of charm’s opposite. Black children from 1955 thru at least 1968 with the killing of Pine Bluff, Arkansas native Bobby Hutton, were not the recipients of congenial acts of public authority.

In part, the potency of the Obama/Philadelphia photograph lies in the suggestion that legal authority may lean in close so as to address an imbalance of power that has routinely harmed black children. While holding the highest office in the land, President Obama leans into a child; it’s a portrait of servant leadership that holds promise for young black boys.

I think it’s interesting that young Jacob asked the president “if your hair felt like mine” and not simply what his hair felt like. Jacob appears to wonder about himself in relationship to the President’s body. In feeling the president’s hair, his touch confirmed his nearness to power rather than his distance from it. The president himself didn’t seem to think that he was a specimen or an object of racial curiosity. I am reminded of a very different scene between legendary tennis champion Arthur Ashe and the spectacle of him attempting to have his hair cut while on the professional tennis circuit. In his memoir, Off the Court, Ashe writes this about his experience in Australia:

Aboriginals all have straight hair and the closest thing to me was a Fijian, whom the Aussies would call a ‘wooly.’ Several times I had to try to explain to an Australian barber how to cut my kinky hair. And each time the shaving became ‘theater.’ People would literally stop and watch; chances are they would never again see a kinky-haired black man get his hair cut. I know that for a long time several players–especially the Russians–wanted to touch my hair but they never asked. Alex Metreveli, the Russian player, had a coach named Serge. One day, at Albert Hall in London, I came out of the shower, semi-dried my hair, put on my clothes, and then proceeded to ‘pick’ my hair. Serge watched with amazement as my ‘pick’ disappeared into my head and with a flick of my wrist I pulled, teased, and shaped my ‘fro.’

‘Vat is dat–dust?’ he asked.

‘No, is not dust. Come here Serge; you can touch it.’

He walked over and felt the top of my head while the locker room roared.

‘Is soft, not hard. I think long time is hard. Feels nice.’

‘What does it feel like, Serge?’

He broke out into a big grin and walked out, amid howls of laughter. (136-137)

One wonders whether the estrangement of hair texture animating the “theatre” described here motivated young Jacob’s inquiry of Obama; and whether the president’s recognition of the feeling moved him to invite the boy to confirm their similarity. Certainly what passes between Obama and young Jacob differs dramatically from Ashe’s description of his encounter with Serge; especially the final silence. What exactly did Serge’s grin mean? How did it answer Ashe’s question about what his hair felt like? Young Jacob answered the president’s question directly, telling him that their hair felt the same. It was a confirmation of sameness, a sense of shared humanity. The grin and the laughter that passes after Ashe’s question to Serge makes no sense. What it doesn’t do, it seems to me, is bring them closer together through shared sameness. The empathy that passes between Obama and Philadelphia does not appear to occur between Ashe and Serge.

The direction of the touch anchors the power of the Obama/Philadelphia photograph. As the photograph suggests that the child has the power to ennoble an apparent supplicant, it moves beyond charm and enters a more substantive realm given that the crown young Jacob touches actually belongs to the one who holds the highest office in the land.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: