The Washington Post running the photograph of the little black youngster feeling President Obama’s hair to see if it was like his was probably lost on some people. What it must have meant for that little boy in the process of finding his identity and his manhood. And however it might be emblematic of other things, it represents also the time and point in which America always finds itself. The kid could have been a white boy that age, or a HispanicLatino kid. Upon seeing the image, my mind travelled back to another moment decades ago.
I remember shepherding a class of about 20 seventh-grade black kids to Monterrey, Mexico, on a field trip from Houston, a trip of about 500 miles. It might have been a trip to the moon – for the kids and hosts alike, not to mention the teacher-chaperones. Upon our arrival at the hotel, some of the hotel’s staff actually touched the hair of my students, and some of the clerks kissed their foreheads. My students giggled. I was embarrassed and touched at the same time – and confused.
On the other side of the coin, one of my black students that evening asked why the Mexicans were not speaking English. “It’s another country. They speak Spanish here,” I said.
“Mexico is another country?”
“Yes, what did you think?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never even been to downtown Houston, and I’ve heard Spanish in Houston. Isn’t it Spanish?”
I was flabbergasted. Some of the parents had never taken their kids downtown much less Mexico and some had never been in a hotel.
In the morning, I was paying for the group’s breakfast as they boarded a bus to go see a landmark waterfall up in the mountains. “Que lindos,” said the young woman behind the register. How beautiful, she said, referring to the kids. I had to ask.
“Señorita, por qué los besaron ayer?” Why did you kiss them yesterday?
“Yo nunca había visto uno. Y fueron los primeros, no?” I had not seen one before, and they were the first ones, right?
Her answer astounded me. In the long line of evolution, in humankind’s fantastic, wondrous journey from chemical stew to life to standing upright and forming a new world, Africans were the first ones to attain human status. They were the first ones to appreciate the sunrise and listen to water fall as something other than noise. From them came everything. I still tear up when I replay that scene that morning in Mexico in my mind.
I have no idea whatever happened to my students. And I wonder what they must have thought about the photograph last week if they saw it. I wonder if they, too, went back in time to that day when their hair was the touch-point to so much.
Feel free to forward these blogs adapted from previous writings, with additional thoughts published invariably in between.