Feeling Is Believing: Why Obama’s Hair Matters

By Guest Contributor Danielle Fuentes Morgan

Courtesy: Politico.com

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.

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  • ES

    “leader of the free world”  – I just love the phrase,  it’s awfully State’s centric and people don’t even notice it.  With that said, best wishies to Obama and  it’s a good things that more kids will belive they can be Presidents (and more the pity, for those who can’t, no matter how long they have been living there)

  • http://www.one3snapshot.com/ One3snapshot

    This actually made me tear up a little.

  • Medusa

    I love this picture, for some reason I never saw it before this week.

    Anyway, I think this was a great article. I’d like to add on that it’s not just in the African American community where “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.” I live in West Africa now, and people here seem to have more hatred of natural hair than anywhere else I’ve ever seen. I have been mocked and ridiculed by family members, strangers, and “friends”… I’ve heard everything from “Why won’t you get a relaxer” to “don’t lock your hair” to “you’re making black people look bad!”

    Here, people are thrilled that America has a black president, regardless of his political stance on anything. Would they be as thrilled if he had an Afro? Or locs? Or if he was cornrowed? Would he even have been elected if that were the case? Would they be thrilled with a black female president with long locs down her back or if she rocked a twist-out everyday? I wonder.

  • scalifornia

    Seems like that fact *can* be overemphasized as seen by proclamations that racism is over

  • Elton

    This is one of the most powerful photos of our era.

  • Kim Olivia Obanor

    I love the picture you selected and the interesting way you described the significance of hair in the African-American community. The “ new limitlessness for children of color” is so monumental and such an excellent phrase to describe the blessing of children of color finally being able to believe in their dreams. I absolutely agree with you that this is one of the most important  gifts President Obama has given us. Congrats to a very gifted, very special writer!!!      Kim Olivia Obanor

  • Avablee1

    Excellent article! Such insight into the picture and exchange between President Obama and Jacob. You continue to make me proud to be your “Aunt Ava”. :-)