When I was about the age Sasha Obama is now, I received a wonderful present. It was a cocoa-colored baby doll with shiny black hair. So thrilled was I with this tiny little look-alike that I vowed to take very good care of her. This meant never washing her hair so it would remain shiny and straight. (This was the 1960’s when sitting by the stove with a hot comb on Saturday night was mandatory.)
Now here come Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, perfectly lovely little brown girls with toothy smiles and brainy parents. They are a delight to watch, but I worry about them a bit because they are still so young. Children living in the White House come of age under the most intense scrutiny. As the girls walked onstage in their little party dresses the night their daddy was elected president, a spotlight shone on them that may never switch off. They are about to become the world’s most famous children.
I have been studying them, occasionally up close but mostly from afar. Malia, the older, more serious one, seems most like her father-ever observant and a bit cerebral. Sasha, the younger, is the child who sometimes waves irrepressibly at crowds and at other times hides in the campaign bus when supporters want to sing “Happy Birthday” to her. Mostly they are just children thrust into an impossible limelight when all they want is a dog and perhaps the chance to sneak some contraband ice cream at Grandma’s house.
I am taken by what America will now see in these two little brown girls. Not victims, like the little girls who died at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in 1963. Not hoochie mamas, like the Black girls who shake their rumps in music videos. Just two happy, playful, well-adjusted future Black women.
Barack Obama was the one who first got me thinking about the image of these two girls in the White House. It was at a Black journalists convention in 2007 when he mused . about what it would mean for other children to see his daughters running around on the South Lawn. “That changes how America looks at itself,” he said. “It changes how White children think about Black children, and it changes how Black children think about Black children.”
It is an utterly compelling image-two bright and pretty little girls clearly delighted to be in their parents’ company. They are well behaved, and they’re shining examples. For me, it’s a relief that our daughters have a more realistic reflection of themselves than cocoa-colored dolls.
Gwen Ifill, managing editor for the PBS news show Washington Week, will release her book The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama (Doubleday) on Inauguration Day.