Phil Skinner’s photograph of an unidentified black boy with a tear streaked face holding a sign that reads “BLACK LIFE MATTERS,” is poignant because it can lead to an easy conclusion that the child is crying because justice was denied Trayvon Martin given the “not guilty” verdict rendered in favor of George Zimmerman. Of course, we have no idea why this child has been crying. He could be upset because his sister ran off with his favorite toy or that his father punished him for saying a bad word moments before the picture was taken. Nonetheless, Skinner’s photograph provides us with an opportunity to take seriously the possibility that this child’s tears prove that black boys learn early how lowly regarded they are as American citizens. Do they know because of the number of students crowded into their classrooms? Do they know because they are hungry? Do they know that they are not safe? Do they know because someone told them they were worthless?
Considering what black children are told about their worth reminds me of the Pete Souza photograph of President Obama bowing before 5-year-old Jacob Philadelphia so as to give the boy an opportunity to feel his hair.
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 in to 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.
Philadelphia’s mother addresses one aspect of her son’s fascination with President Obama’s hair when she offers that he consistently asks his barber for a haircut like the President’s. What this history doesn’t tell us is why young Jacob wants hair to signal his relationship to the President. Has his hair been presented to him as a problem? Has he suffered as a result of his hair texture? Did Obama identify with Philadelphia’s youthful curiosity? Was there a black man in a position of authority whose hair he wanted to feel?
Through remarks President Obama made in the wake of the Zimmerman trial verdict, he paraphrased the first statement he ever made about the slaying where he puts forth the notion that if he had a son, he would’ve looked like Trayvon Martin. In his most recent statement, he noted that Trayvon Martin could have been his son. In capturing the full essence of this claim, Obama restates this position and contends that “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.” Though the President discussed the inconveniences of being black in America, he didn’t say much about the deadly consequences of being black in America. The justification the court gave Zimmerman to kill an unarmed black child highlights racism’s lethal force: Claims of racism are more than mere complaints, they are accusations of murder. The little boys in the Skinner and Souza photographs suggest that black children come of age knowing how lowly they are regarded in American life. Their tears and their touch tells us what black boys know. If our goal for justice includes saving black boys, one step towards aiding them involves seeing them as credible witnesses. Pay attention to black boys’ tears and to what they seek to touch. Doing so might tell you how to identify and how to make use of what they are learning about race in America.