When first lady Michelle Obama referenced the young African-American boy who touched President Barack Obama’s hair during a family visit to the White House, the story reverberated throughout the convention hall at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Phoenix Awards gala. But the story of Jacob Philadelphia has meaning that goes beyond one speech, one gala, or one black boy.
The boy’s name was Jacob Philadelphia, who in 2009 visited the White House with his older brother, his mom, and his father, a former Marine and White House staffer for the National Security Council.
Mrs. Obama in her speech Saturday told Jacob’s story:
I want you to think about a photo that hangs in the West Wing of the White House. Some of you may have seen it. It’s a picture of a young black family visiting the President in the Oval Office. The father was a member of the White House staff, and he’d brought his wife and two young sons to meet my husband. In the photo, Barack is bent over at the waist. And one of the sons — a little boy, just about five years old — is reaching out his tiny little hand to touch my husband’s head.
And it turns out that upon meeting Barack, this little boy gazed up at him longingly and he said, “I want to know if my hair is just like yours.” And Barack replied, “Why don’t you touch it and see for yourself?” (Applause.) So he bent way down so the little boy could feel his hair. And after touching my husband’s head, the little boy exclaimed, “Yes, it does feel the same!” (Laughter and applause.)
Now, every couple of weeks, the White House photographers change out all the photos in the West Wing — except for that one. That one — and that one alone — has hung on that wall for more than three years.
So if you ever wonder whether change is possible, I want you to think about that little black boy in the office — the Oval Office of the White House — touching the head of the first black President.
It seems the nation has quickly moved on from the truly historic nature of electing the first black president. But for so many black Americans, that history is ever present, and remains poignant. Sometimes it takes something as simple as a child’s wish to compare the president’s hair with his own, while standing in a White House built in large part by the labor of African-American slaves, to remind us.
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