Calmes: The guy who touched Obama’s head is graduating, with congratulations from the former president

In each of the past two weeks, an 18-year-old American male has grabbed the nation’s attention horribly, one for allegedly gunning down 10 blacks in a New York state grocery store, the other for slaughtering 19 fourth-grade Latinos and Two teachers in a Texas school.

Those teenagers represent the worst in us, even though as a nation we are all accomplices – for allowing such gun slaughters to become commonplace due to our political paralysis and cultural fetish for weapons of war, and, first time in this century, due to conservative judges misreading of the 2nd amendment.

Save some attention, however, for the countless other 18-year-olds, the Class of 2022 who graduate from high school nationwide and into adulthood with hopes – we hope – for their future. And not just nationally: I would like to reintroduce an 18-year-old American, Jacob Philadelphia, who graduated on Friday at International School Uganda just outside Kampala, where his father works at the US embassy.


Jackie Calmes

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

Jacob really has high hopes: to become president of the United States.

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

“Touch it, friend!” the president said, bringing his head close to that of the child as well, as I said a story ten years ago about their meeting in 2009.

The photo that White House photographer Pete Souza hastily snapped, which to this day is a public favorite in Souza’s popular conference tours about his years in the White House, he seemed to capture the promise inherent in Obama’s revolutionary election: that all Americans could finally imagine someone who looked like themselves in the nation’s highest office.

The photo represented hope and change, the watchwords of the Obama campaign. Yet now those feelings have faded like the iconic signs 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 the once heady talk of a post-racial society has given way to deep anxiety about racial regression.

Americans of his generation came of age as witnesses not only to racial injustice streamed video but, under Obama’s successor, also to the mainstreaming of bigotry. They inherit a nation as divided as at any time since the civil war and endured two years of enforced isolation from the pandemic that inhibited their education, social life and, for many, their mental health.

Against this backdrop, Obama and Jacob got together virtually this week, to celebrate the young man’s milestone. The four-and-a-half-minute video the Times got from their exchange – with Obama in his Washington office, Jacob at school – will be shown at the graduation ceremony for Jacob’s class of some 60 multinational students.

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

“I remember saying to Michelle and some of my staff, ‘You know, I think if I win, the day I was sworn in, young people, especially African Americans, people of color, strangers, people that maybe they did They don’t always feel like they belong – they would look at themselves differently to see a person who looks like them in the Oval Office. He would talk to black guys and Latino guys, gay guys and girls. They could see the world opening up for them. “

Of course, Jacob didn’t understand any of this at the time. He remembers thinking that Obama “was just my father’s boss” – his father, Carlton Philadelphia, was then working on the National Security Council and was about to take up a post at the State Department in Mexico – and most of all he remembers being intimidated. from the large office “and which overlooked it”. about me. “But Jacob got the deeper meaning pretty soon.

“This was a highlight of my life,” he says in the video. “If I can see another black man being on top, being in that pinnacle, then I want to follow that lead.”

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

Obama asked Jacob if moving overseas from one place to another had been difficult for him, perhaps channeling Obama’s childhood experience following his anthropologist mother from Hawaii to Indonesia.

“It’s a bit difficult,” Jacob replies, speaking for himself and his brother Isaac, 21. “But in the end, we see a lot of things that a lot of other guys don’t get a chance to see. We can talk to people and see their ideals about how they want to change the world ”.

“I think the visit to the White House clearly inspired you,” Obama says. “I hope.”

We hope too.

For Jacob and the rest of his generation, we need to reclaim hope. And take action, beyond thoughts and prayers, to help them turn it into reality.