By Guest Contributor Danielle Fuentes Morgan
It’s a question President Obama has undoubtedly been asked before. It’s almost a universal African American experience, except this time it was asked under different circumstances and for a different reason.
“Can I touch your hair?”
The photo of this moment, three-years-old at this point, is making the rounds again. You’ve seen it in your inbox and on social networking sites—President Obama, bent at his waist while a five-year-old African American boy wearing a tie and dress pants touches his hair. It seems innocuous enough—meriting a few awwws certainly—but leaving some to wonder what all the fuss is about. Cute, sure. But is this news? Absolutely.
The New York Times recounts the conversation between Jacob and the president:
“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.
Jacob had the opportunity to meet the president, face-to-face, and the question he decided to ask was about his hair? And this is the point where people get caught up. Why his hair? Wasn’t it enough to see that his skin was brown like the president’s skin?
Hair holds great interracial and intraracial significance for African Americans. How it looks and how it feels is viewed as a nearly political choice. I think of my youngest brother, soft-spoken and introspective, who cut his hair into a ‘frohawk while in middle school and how the girls shyly smiled at this newly christened bad boy.
Or my middle brother, a pianist, who mesmerized audiences as his ‘fro (now dreadlocks) bounced and rocked as he slammed on the keys; now, that’s musician hair. I look back on my days teaching high school, where the girls asked for five more minutes after the bell to finish braiding their friend’s hair so she could look good for lunch. Meanwhile, the boys meticulously brushed their hair and picked out their ‘fros during silent reading.
In some black communities, hair isn’t just a woman’s crowning glory.
Hair can be an immense source of black pride but also a source of shame and identity confusion. It has been historically parodied and ridiculed. It has been caricatured. But what happens when this is presidential hair? By touching the president’s hair–hair like his own–Jacob not only got confirmation of the president’s blackness, but also of their shared experiences. It was a wise choice by a smart young man.
Perhaps then one of the president’s greatest legacies will ultimately be that his presence in office and his very physicality gestures to a new limitlessness for children of color–a limitlessness that seems granted to white American children by virtue of cultural inheritance.
People often wonder aloud, with no lack of condescension, why young black men aspire to become rap superstars or NBA ballers. The answer is simply that these are the leadership roles in which black men are prominently featured in the media and, as a result, children gravitate to the careers they have seen modeled.
After all, it is a rare young man of any race who grows up hoping to become an investment banker or reach middle management, unless their parents pursued these career paths. Obama’s presidency changes things, and that fact cannot be overemphasized. It’s perhaps even less important that children of color believe they can be the president specifically, but that they believe they can now be anything.
If a black man—indeed, a black man named Barack Hussein Obama—can become leader of the free world, then what can’t a child of color do? It’s this new belief in the possibility of limitlessness that matters so much. Perhaps Jacob couldn’t believe his eyes. But by touching the president’s hair, his own potential was affirmed.
Danielle Fuentes Morgan is a Ph.D. candidate in English literature at Cornell University. She is especially interested in 20th and 21st century African American literature, episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” and her dog, Moxie. She hails from Durham, North Carolina.