We are now two weeks into the presidency of Barack Obama, and for many of us, the new reality is still what one blogger described as a “fragmentation bomb,” which keeps exploding in unexpected moments. It’s Obama’s smiling face being printed everywhere like currency. Malia’s twists. Visions of Grandma Robinson getting pampered by White House staff.
A flood of books will saturate stores in the coming months to articulate why this peculiar American moment is happening and how we got here. What Obama Means…For Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Future author Jabari Asim’s contribution to our understanding of this incredible moment will stand apart from the rest—and through the test of time—for a few reasons.
The book looks at the campaign/election from varying points; its historical references and parallels are strong and well-chosen, and it successfully illuminates how cultural, technological and political forces converged to make last year possible. What's most fresh (and significant) is the scope of the analysis. Most writers tackle either the cultural, the political or historical, but not all three.
Asim accomplishes this to great effect in bypassing past overanalyzed mileposts such as “The Bradley Effect” and Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns. Instead, he looks to pop music, Hollywood and less-recognized historical figures. Asim reveals how figures as diverse as Frederick Douglass, Barbara Jordan and Michael Jordan helped smooth Obama’s path to national acceptance.
In the musical artist Prince, Asim sees a biracial bandleader whose messages of unity presaged “Yes We Can.” In Obama’s calls for individual accountability, he finds precedence in Sly and The Family Stone’s “You Can Make It If You Try” and Michael Jackson’s “Man In The Mirror.” The author challenges the notion that black leaders spout mantras of victimization and dependency, citing a tradition of “tough love” dating to mid-19th century pastor Henry Highland Garnet.
Many have observed how cool Obama appears under pressure, and so Asim examines the historic role of “cool” in black culture, an ethos envied by white 1930s jazzman Mezz Mezzrow and writer Jack Kerouac. The confidence and black male identity Obama sought as a youth raised by a white parent, he later found largely due to his participation in basketball. “He didn’t know who he was until he found basketball,” his brother-in-law Craig Robinson said. Obama says basketball allows, “…an aspect of improvisation within a discipline that I find very powerful…”
Asim covers the black presidency in film, from 7-year-old Sammy Davis Jr. in the exploitative Rufus Jones For President in 1933, through James Earl Jones in 1972’s box office bust The Man and Morgan Freeman in Deep Impact, which grossed $350 million in 1998. Producers of the TV series 24 discuss how race was underplayed in Dennis Haysbert’s portrayal of President David Palmer.
Asim draws parallels between Obama's parents and the interracial couple in the1967 movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Like Obama’s parents, the lead characters met in Hawaii. In both cases, a black intellectual romanced a white idealist. In the film, Sidney Poitier tells his prospective father-in-law, that he “…feels that every single one of our children will be president of the United States.” Analogy is also drawn to the movie Lilies of the Field, in which nuns ask handyman Homer Smith (played by Poitier) to build them a chapel. Smith tells the women that three things are required—a plan, labor and materials. Asim says supporters entrust Obama "to rebuild the economy and other national infrastructures." He describes Homer Smith as exemplary of the “Magical Negro” archetype prevalent in literature and Hollywood.
Such expectations triggered a love fest of messianic proportions. Pundit Chris Matthews gushed "…This is bigger than Kennedy. This is the New Testament." Asim writes "…Sidney Poitier carried the cross for Jesus; if Obama had been cast in a remake of ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’ after his third debate… he'd have been the one wearing the crown of thorns…"
There was a backlash to this cult of personality. In response to the criticism, a Bowie State student told Asim, "Clinton said a lot of the stuff he says is just dreams, but this country is founded on dreams."
Asim reminds us that issues that disproportionately affect black America such as AIDS, a 50 percent high school dropout rate and 70 percent of children born out of wedlock, will not disappear under Obama, though "…we will be forced to look at these problems through new lenses…"
Obama has decried “…the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white…” And Asim says the child will now be seen as “…acting presidential …” and predicts, “That’s where the change … will begin to manifest immediately … it will be fashionable to be brainy …”
In The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. DuBois pondered the actions of a striving black man unhindered by bigotry. DuBois felt the person would neither “…Africanize America…” nor “…bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism…” but “…use his best powers and his latent genius…” And President Obama is the first to operate under such freedom.
Bijan C. Bayne is a cultural critic based in Washington, D.C.