Touching Obama's Hair
Jacob Philadelphia, the five-year-old son of a departing staff member, had the opportunity to ask his President, my President, yours if you were a United States citizen between January 20 2009 - 2017, one question.
“I want to know if my hair is just like yours,” Jacob asked, but he asked so quietly President Obama had to ask him to say it again.
Obama said, “Why don’t you touch it and see for yourself.” He bent forward and lowered his head to Jacob’s height, but the boy hesitated to touch the head of this famous man.
So Obama said, “Touch it, Dude!”
As Jacob patted his head (I am getting this information from a New York Times article. The only picture I have seen of the meeting makes it look as if Jacob had a still hand on Obama’s head, blessing him.), Obama asked, “So what do you think?"
“Yes,” Jacob said, “it does feel the same.”
In a later interview, Jacob’s parents said that when Jacob had started preschool, he’d come home and asked why he looked different from the other kids, but when Obama was elected President, the kids would say to him, “You look just like President Obama!”
We so want to belong.
What is reported is that Jacob wanted to see if he and Obama had the same hair, but what Jacob says in a Youtube interview is that he wanted to see if they had the same haircut, and on the photograph of the event Jacob was given by the White House, Obama wrote, “We’ve got the same haircut!”
Now, apparently, when Jacob goes to the barber, the barber automatically knows what Jacob wants. The young boy has found a home on his own head: the home of likeness, of belonging.
Why is the distinction between hair and haircut important? As a person who was adopted, I’m always looking for creative ways to help kids (and me) feel they fit into their families, into their world. If you don't have the same hair, maybe a haircut is the answer. Maybe there are ways around not being the same.
I was physically bigger than my (I know you want me to say adoptive, but I won’t) parents both in bone structure and muscle mass, and so I developed an eating disorder when I was younger and got myself to my mother’s weight. I didn’t think, I’m adopted and I want to look like my mother so I look like I fit in this family. I think I will barely eat to lose twenty pounds from my athletic body. I thought, I am wrong. I want to be right. One hundred and fifty pounds is wrong. One hundred and thirty is right.
Did it make a difference when I finally got non-identifying information about my birth mother and learned that she weighed one hundred and fifty pounds?
What could also have made a difference? If my parents had said, "Look at those nice, broad shoulders you have. Maybe your birth mother was German." (I don't know. I'm guessing. But I think acknowledging that being bigger wasn't my fault, wasn't something I even had much control over, would have helped me feel real instead of wrong.)
Michelle Obama, in a talk at the African American Methodist Episcopal Church Conference said, “So if you ever wonder if change is possible, I want you to think about that little black boy in the office, the Oval Office, of the White House, touching the head of the first black President.”
(I long for the day that saying “little black boy” will be as redundant as saying “little white boy” when telling a story, but a quote is a quote, and so there it is.)
When you are young, feeling different isn’t always the straightest route to personal empowerment. Acknowledgement of difference is something that comes with age. You don’t leap off the diving board before you feel safe in the water. Generally, you need to feel grounded in your self and your family before you can leap off into the world of I am different. Look at me.
When my brother Sam was young, he spent what seemed like hours in the bathroom trying to get his curly hair straight. Know that his hair was never, as far as I know, criticized in our house. We loved Sam’s hair. We couldn’t stop touching it the first day he came to us as a silent two-year-old. It didn’t matter that we thought his hair was good. It was not like ours. And the fact that we didn’t stop touching it, didn’t stop remarking on it, only made the difference between us clearer for my brother.
As a teenager, he used his own money to buy a lye concoction to straighten his hair. This was in the 1980’s. It wasn’t all that long ago, but my progressive parents hadn’t received any education about issues in transracial adoption. If you have read Malcom X’s autobiography, you have an idea what it feels like to put lye on your head. It’s hard for me to think about my sweet little brother in the bathroom, burning his scalp to fit in, and so I don’t think about it.
This don't think about it response may be the biggest problem when it comes to transracial adoption or adoption in general. People can choose not to focus on or think about the ways the children suffer, and then nothing changes.
In The Washington Post, Jonathan Capehart wrote:
For Jacob, asking Obama about his hair was clearly about establishing a connection, about confirming that the powerful person who looks like him is really like him in so many ways. As Obama adviser David Axelrod told Calmes, “Really, what he was saying is, ‘Gee, you’re just like me.’ And it doesn’t take a big leap to think that child could be thinking, ‘Maybe I could be here someday.’”
The power of that photo taken by White House photographer Pete Souza had those two elements for me. A black man allowing his head to be touched by a stranger. But not just any stranger. A child seeking a familiar link between himself and the black man, who also happens to be the leader of the free world. Still, I don’t think I can ever articulate everything the Souza photo says to me.
Obama gets a bum rap for not talking more openly about race. What his critics don’t get — and what the Souza photo perfectly illustrates — is that the president addresses so much about race without ever opening his mouth.
Sam didn't meet his birth father until last year--a man who has hair just like Sam's. Sam's not a big talker, so I'm not even sure how the meeting has affected him, but it still says a lot that my brother can find almost no words to talk about it.
I wish adoption was an easier conversation, but as of now it's a field of landmines. Adoptees, birth mothers, parents who adopt, all seem to have their triggers, their list of sub-topics of what can be mentioned and what can't. I have a dream that one day people will be able to talk about adoption the way they do about the weather. Like clouds. Like blue sky.
But how can you talk about race without repeating what has already been said? In the same vein, how can I talk about adoption?
I like Obama’s style: live the answers.