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The boy who touched Obama’s head graduates, with congratulations from the ex-president

“Touch it, man,” President Obama told Jacob Philadelphia in 2009 in the Oval Office. (Pete Souza/White House)

In each of the past two weeks, an 18-year-old American has come to horrifically the nation’s attention, one for allegedly gunning down 10 black people at an upstate New York grocery store, the other for massacring 19 fourth grade Latino students and two teachers at a school in Texas.

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

Pay some attention, however, to the countless other 18-year-olds, the class of 2022 graduating from high schools nationwide and 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 graduated Friday from the International School of Uganda just outside Kampala, where his father works at the US Embassy. United.

Jacob indeed harbors great hopes: to become President of the United States.

I say “reintroduce” because many of us “know” 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 country’s first black president – bows in the Oval Office to a black child who has just asked him if his straight hair really looks like the boy’s.

“Touch it, man! the president said, bringing his head closer to the child’s, as I recounted in 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 an audience favorite on Souza’s popular speaking tours of his White House years, seemed to capture the inherent promise to the election of Obama: that all Americans could finally imagine someone who looked like themselves in the highest office in the country.

The photo represented hope and change, the hallmarks of Obama’s campaign. Yet those sentiments are now as faded as the iconic signs that once heralded 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 rhetoric 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 on video, but also, under Obama’s successor, to the entrenchment of bigotry. They inherit a nation as divided as at any time since the Civil War, and they have endured two years of pandemic-enforced isolation that has inhibited their education, social life and, for many, their mental health.

In this context, Obama and Jacob met virtually this week, to mark the milestone of the young man. The 4.5-minute video The Times obtained 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 students. multinationals.

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

“I remember saying to Michelle and some of my team members, ‘You know, I think if I were to win, the day I took the oath, young people – especially African Americans, people of color, strangers, people who may not always feel like they belong – they would look differently to see someone who looks like them in the Oval Office. would talk to black kids and Latino kids, gay kids and young girls, they could see the world opening up to them.

Of course, Jacob did not grasp any of this at the time. He remembers thinking that Obama “was just my father’s boss” – his father, Carlton Philadelphia, was then working at the National Security Council and was about to take a post at the State Department in Mexico – and especially remembers being intimidated by the big office “and him imposing on me.” But Jacob understood the deeper meaning soon enough.

“It was a pretty significant moment in my life,” he says in the video. “If I see another black man being at the top, being at that top, then I want to follow that lead.”

His mother, Roseane Philadelphia, told me in a telephone interview from the family home in Kampala that over the years Jacob dreamed of being one thing, then another, but “the only thing” that was 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 abroad from place to place had been difficult for him – perhaps channeling Obama’s own childhood experience following his anthropologist mother from Hawaii to Indonesia. .

“It’s a bit difficult,” Jacob replies, speaking for himself and his 21-year-old brother Isaac. “But at the end of the day, we see a lot of things that a lot of other kids don’t get to see. We can talk to people and see their ideals to find out how they want to change the world.

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

We also hope.

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


This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.


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