The Story Behind the Boy Who Touched President Obama’s Hair

Share Button

When this photo came out a few years back, we posted it on BGLH, and now the story behind it has come to light in a New York Times article. Check it out:

By Jackie Calmes of The New York Times

For decades at the White House, photographs of the president at work and at play have hung throughout the West Wing, and each print soon gives way to a more recent shot. But one picture of President Obama remains after three years.

In the photo, Mr. Obama looks to be bowing to a sharply dressed 5-year-old black boy, who stands erect beside the Oval Office desk, his arm raised to touch the president’s hair — to see if it feels like his. The image has struck so many White House aides and visitors that by popular demand it stays put while others come and go.

As a candidate and as president, Mr. Obama has avoided discussing race except in rare instances when he seemed to have little choice — responding to the racially incendiary words of his former pastor, for example, or to the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Florida. Some black leaders criticize Mr. Obama for not directly addressing young blacks or proposing policies specifically for them.

Yet the photo is tangible evidence of what polls also show: Mr. Obama remains a potent symbol for blacks, with a deep reservoir of support. As skittish as White House aides often are in discussing race, they also clearly revel in the power of their boss’s example.

The boy in the picture is Jacob Philadelphia of Columbia, Md. Three years ago this month, his father, Carlton, a former Marine, was leaving the White House staff after a two-year stint on the National Security Council that began in the Bush administration. As departing staff members often do, Mr. Philadelphia asked for a family photograph with Mr. Obama.

When the pictures were taken and the family was about to leave, Mr. Philadelphia told Mr. Obama that his sons each had a question. In interviews, he and his wife, Roseane, said they did not know what the boys would ask. The White House photographer, Pete Souza, was surprised, too, as the photo’s awkward composition attests: The parents’ heads are cut off; Jacob’s arm obscures his face; and his older brother, Isaac, is blurry.

Jacob spoke first.

“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.

(Isaac, now 11, asked Mr. Obama why he had eliminated the F-22 fighter jet. Mr. Obama said it cost too much, Isaac and his parents recounted.)

In keeping with a practice of White House photographers back to Gerald R. Ford’s presidency, each week Mr. Souza picks new photos for display. That week, Jacob’s easily made the cut.

“As a photographer, you know when you have a unique moment. But I didn’t realize the extent to which this one would take on a life of its own,” Mr. Souza said. “That one became an instant favorite of the staff. I think people are struck by the fact that the president of the United States was willing to bend down and let a little boy feel his head.”

David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s longtime adviser, has a copy framed in his Chicago office. He said of Jacob, “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.’ This can be such a cynical business, and then there are moments like that that just remind you that it’s worth it.”

A copy of the photo hangs in the Philadelphia family’s living room with several others taken that day. Mr. Philadelphia, now in Afghanistan for the State Department, said: “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.”

Jacob, now 8, said he indeed does want to be president. “Or a test pilot.”

Share Button
Black Girl With Long Hair

Black Girl With Long Hair

Leila, founding editor of Black Girl with Long Hair (April 2008), social media and black beauty enthusiast. When I'm not here, I'm moderating a Facebook group for black mothers called Black Moms Connect.

 

29 thoughts on “The Story Behind the Boy Who Touched President Obama’s Hair

  1. One of my favorite pics of POTUS!! Other favorites include: gazing at FLOTUS with so much love in his eyes, playing with the kids, or sitting with his cabinet looking so calm, cool, and collected! =)

    Love this story and I can only imagine how this may translate positively into this child’s psyche. “Black” male and female representations in positions of power and status matter in identity formation for children of the African diaspora. We certainly know other so-called ‘races’ can certainly relate to their ‘fictive kin’, and we see and read this when people assume blacks have done little that contributes to society (ie inventions, science, technology, literature, etc) and/or as the article mentions, how different children depending on SES or race envision their future career etc.

    The cutie known as Jacob with President Obama is ADORABLE…AWWWWW =)

    Thumb up Thumb down +3

    • + 1,000,000,000,000,000

      The leader of the free world – my goodness! I am always warmed by our president’s ability to exude his overwhelming humanity and enormous charm.

      I’m also distraught at the ‘historical erasure’ of amazing Black innovation in art, science, politics, law and economics. I grew up with Encyclopedia Britannica’s ‘The Negro in American History’ vols. I-III and feel as if this knowledge has been buried from view of generations of Black people around the world and their accessibility to a wealth of identifiable forbears.

      Jacob is soooo cute!

      Thumb up Thumb down +2

      • O, Annie-I wanted to say I 1000% agree w/ your statement regarding knowledge and everything else. I had something written out, but my laptop keeps kicking me off-line leaving me little time to expand on what I wanted to say. =/

        Cheers all!

        Thumb up Thumb down 0

        • Much thanks anastasia!

          I’m always nodding with and high-fiving your posts too, Lol! It’s so amazing our little community and how much I’m used to feeling like I know everyone :) Enjoy the rest of this h-o-t weekend all!

          Thumb up Thumb down 0

  2. i understood what was going on in the photo without even needing to read the story.

    it just goes to show how hair really is an identifier of “blackness,” despite what people claim.

    Thumb up Thumb down +3

    • I dont think hair is “an identifier of blackness” but OUR HAIR is different then any other group of people, blacks are the only group whose hair is NATURALLY curly, wavy, kinky, coily or nappy and no other ethnic groups hair is like ours…

      Thumb up Thumb down -1

      • “blacks are the only group whose hair is NATURALLY curly, wavy, kinky, coily or nappy and no other ethnic groups hair is like ours…”

        you just proved my point…

        and that little boy would disagree with you. he wanted to see if that man had black in him, cuz a true negro would have some degree of kink in his hair – that’s what that little boy was thinking – is he really me?

        touching the hair proved it.

        boy was probably like, dang, he is a negro. i didn’t believe it before, but now i really do. i touched the hair. lmao.

        Thumb up Thumb down +3

  3. Awesome post made my morning for sure!Our President is the bomb!!! oldie but goody! lol and what a little cutie!!!!

    Thumb up Thumb down 0

  4. The same thing happened to my brother when he came to visit me in Japan, a Japanese man asked if he could touch my brother’s hair. I think it is great that some people are curious like that and that Obama encouraged little Jacob to touch his hair, even in my own immediate family there are different hair textures, little Jacob seems to recognise this too.

    Thumb up Thumb down +2

  5. Awesome! Yes some boys need to see success to be successful and men need motivation from the “have not mentality”. I can see the change in opportunities and officials of color after President Obama election.

    Thumb up Thumb down +1

  6. Does anyone else not seem to notice or care when our sitting president is referred to as “Mr” by the media? It seems to be a subtle way of putting him down and not according him the proper respect he deserves. Even past presidents living and deceased maintain the title “President” out of respect for having held the office. I do not care how many syllables his name has, he will always be President Obama to me!!!

    Thumb up Thumb down 0

  7. if the little boy was white would people still think this was a cute tear jerker moment? just asking cause naturals complain ALL the time about people asking to touch their hair. : )

    Thumb up Thumb down +1

  8. Woah this weblog is excellent i love studying your articles. Keep up the good paintings! You know, many individuals are hunting round for this information, you can help them greatly.

    Thumb up Thumb down +1

  9. Yes, we all realize that this president’s father was african, and what that means to Americans of african descent…yet instead of acknowledging this and moving on, the most propogandized leader in seventy years continues the publicity junket and campaign because that’s all he’s really capable of.

    Thumb up Thumb down +1

  10. Does anyone recall this man is supposedly only HALF black? So if his mother was Chinese or Japanese would he have been the first president of Africanese or Eseafrica decent? Cute little boy.

    Thumb up Thumb down 0

  11. I stopped reading after the reference to ‘black boy’. I don’t think I’ve EVER read a story that said ‘nicely dressed 5 y/o white boy…”

    Do better

    Thumb up Thumb down 0

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Image Upload

You can add images to your comments by selecting them below.