Calmes: The boy who touched Obama’s head is graduating, with the ex-president’s congratulations

In each of the last two weeks, an 18-year-old American man has horribly drawn the nation’s attention, one for allegedly gunning down 10 black people at a grocery store in upstate New York, the other for killing 19 fourth-grader Latino students and two teachers at a Texas school.

These teenagers represent the worst of us, though as a nation we are all complicit – for allowing such gun massacres because of our political paralysis and our cultural fetish for weapons of war and, for the first time in this century, misinterpretation of the 2nd Amendment by conservative judges .

Waste some attention, however, to the countless other 18-year-olds, the Class of 2022, who are graduating high school nationwide and heading into adulthood with hope — we hope for their future. And not just nationally: I’d like to reintroduce an 18-year-old American, Jacob Philadelphia, who graduates Friday from the International School of Uganda outside of Kampala, where his father works at the US embassy.

Spotted portrait illustration of Jackie Calmes

opinion columnist

Jackie Calmes

Jackie Calmes takes a critical look at the national political scene. She has decades of experience reporting on the White House and Congress.

Indeed, Jacob has high hopes: to become President of the United States.

I say “reintroduce” because many of us “know” Jacob. However, we know him as the 5-year-old black boy at the center of one of the most famous photos of Barack Obama’s presidency. Pictured in the Oval Office, the leader of the free world – the nation’s first black president – bows to a black child who has just asked him if his wiry hair really resembles the boy’s.

“Touch it, dude!” said the President, bringing his head level with the child’s, as I recounted in a story about their encounter in 2009 a decade ago.

The photo, snapped in a hurry by White House photographer Pete Souza and still a crowd favorite at Souza’s popular speaking tours of his White House years, seemed to capture the promise inherent in Obama’s landmark election: that all Americans finally being able to introduce someone who looked like themselves in the nation’s highest office.

The photo represented hope and change, the watchwords of Obama’s campaign. But now those sentiments have faded as much as the iconic characters that once advertised them. And Jacob, now a young man, will soon return to the United States to attend the University of Memphis at a time when once heady talk of a postracial society has given way to a deep fear of racial regression.

Americans of his generation have not only witnessed streamed racial injustice, but also the mainstreaming of bigotry under Obama’s successor. They inherit a nation more divided than at any time since the Civil War, and they have endured two years of pandemic-enforced isolation that impacted their education, social life and, for many, their mental health.

With that in mind, Obama and Jacob reunited virtually this week to celebrate the young man’s milestone. The 4½-minute video obtained by The Times of their exchange – with Obama in his Washington office, Jacob at school – will be shown at the graduation ceremony for Jacob’s class of about 60 multinational students.

A framed copy of the Souza photo hangs in Obama’s office. The former president says: “I think this picture embodies one of the hopes I had when I first started running for office.

“I remember saying to Michelle and some of my staff, ‘You know, I think if I won, the day I was sworn into office, young people — especially African Americans, people of color, misfits, people, They don’t always feel like they belong—they would see themselves differently if they saw someone who looks like them in the Oval Office. It would speak to black kids and latino kids, gay kids and young girls. They could see the world opening up to them.”

Of course, Jacob didn’t understand any of this at the time. He recalls thinking Obama was “just my father’s boss” — his father, Carlton Philadelphia, was then working on the National Security Council and about to accept a State Department post in Mexico — and specifically recalls that he was intimidated by the big office “and its size.” But Jacob soon understood the deeper meaning.

“That was a pretty big highlight of my life,” he says in the video. “When I see another black man at the top, on that summit, I want to follow that lead.”

His mother, Roseane Philadelphia, told me in a phone interview from the family home in Kampala that Jacob has dreamed over the years of being one thing and then the other, but “the only thing” that has remained constant is his desire to finally become president. “That’s why he’s going to study political science,” she said.

Obama asked Jacob if he had found moving abroad from place to place difficult — perhaps because he channeled Obama’s own childhood experience of following his anthropologist from Hawaii to Indonesia.

“It’s quite difficult,” Jacob replies, speaking for himself and Brother Isaac, 21. “But at the end of the day, we see a lot of things that a lot of other kids can’t see. We can talk to people and see their ideals of how they want to change the world.”

“I think the visit to the White House definitely inspired you,” Obama said. “I hope.”

We hope too.

For Jacob and the rest of his generation, we must regain hope. And act beyond thoughts and prayers to help them make it a reality.

@jackiekcalmes

https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2022-05-27/barack-obama-photograph-boy-hair-pete-souza-oval-office-graduation Calmes: The boy who touched Obama’s head is graduating, with the ex-president’s congratulations

Alley Einstein

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