A Photograph for the Ages: American Black history in the flash of a bulb
If you have never been the parent of an African
American child, you may not fully understand the impact of this image of
President Barack Obama bowing to allow Jacob Philadelphia, then 5, to
touch his hair so Jacob could determine if the President's hair felt
First Lady Michelle Obama was a guest on the newly
minted Steve Harvey Show, another afternoon talk show hosted by the
comedy star and best-selling author. During their light-hearted
conversation about life with the President, Harvey put his image up on
the monitors and asked why it is the only photograph that isn't allowed
to be moved, while all the others are rotated routinely by White House
I can answer that without even listening to Mrs. Obama's response.
It is because this image is worth even more than
those proverbial 1000 words. It is a study in history, sociology,
psychology, irony and innocence.
The history is the most obvious. I know of no other
time in the history of America when the only person who was NOT black in
a photo taken in the Oval Office was the photographer.
No other man of any known measure of African descent has ever called 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C. home.
Now, the house that was partially built by black
slaves who served as skilled carpenters and masons in the stone quarries
that supplied the stone for the White House and other government
buildings; the house where Thomas Jefferson and his successor James
Madison, who held slaves all their lives, didn't stop when they took up
residence in Washington. To have a half-African American now calling
the shots in that residence brings the shameful history of slavery in
America full circle.
Or does it?
According to a May 2012 article in the New York Times
little Jacob and his older brother are the sons of a Carlton
Philadelphia of Columbia, MD. The former U.S. Marine was leaving his
tw0-year post on the National Security Council in 2009. As is customary
for departing staffers, Philadelphia requested a family photo with the
Each Philadelphia son was told they could ask the
President one question, but they didn't have to tell their parents what
their questions would be.
I look at this picture through misty eyes.
Little Jacob is the spitting image of my son Stephen when he was that
age. Even at such a young age -- even with all that assumed innocence
-- Jacob seemed to be having trouble believing that someone who had hair
just like his closely-cropped curls could actually be the most powerful
person in the whole country. Jacob needed a reality check. And thus,
We have not yet come full circle. Full circle would
mean that a child would not be concerned about things such as hair
texture and skin color. He would have had no conversations in his
kindergarten class about why his kinky curly hair was somehow less
desirable than his classmate’s silky blond locks. He would not have
been "advised" by another child of his differences. Full circle would
mean children would look at skin color and hair texture as simple
variations on the plumage of the human species.
No, we aren't there yet, but we're getting there.
Jacob, now 8, is probably not the only little black child truly
believing he has a shot at being the President of the United States or
anything else he sets his mind to accomplish.