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What Obama Means

A cultural survey of the history of race relations in the U.S.

By Theo Lippmann Jr. / January 19, 2009



If there were a Pulitzer Prize for name dropping, Jamari Asim’s short new work of cultural commentary, What Obama Means ... For Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Future, would win it. I mean that as a compliment. “What Obama Means” is loaded with a cast of characters that stretches from Thomas Jefferson to Malcolm X and beyond, all part of Asim’s attempt to understand the societal transformation that led to the election of America’s first African-American president.

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Asim, who is editor in chief of The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP, and author of the 2007 book “The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why,” takes a sweeping look at American cultural history, examining the troubled history of race relations in this country and studying some of the iconic figures who, in one fashion or another, had a part in paving the way for an Obama presidency.

For instance: For years, movies with black stars like Sidney Poitier were popular and respected by whites. Often, however, the characters that these actors played were of a type that  became known as “magic Negroes.”

Asim writes, “Usually such characters exist solely to assist a white protagonist in the pursuit of a goal (true love, say, or career success, or mastery of a sport).” Some such characters even gave their lives for their white co-stars.

Fictions like these had their roots even deeper in America’s past, in such characters as Uncle Tom in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and Jim in “Huck Finn.”

More recently, there is the case of Dennis Haysbert. On the program “24,” he played a senator who became president of the United States. “He spent much of his campaign and his tenure with a target on his back [and] was assassinated,” Asim writes. A white politician became president in his place.

Such fictional plots reflect real-life concerns. Many black and white Americans are fearful of a black president becoming a target. With good reason. Seven 20th-century presidents  have been shot at and two were killed. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate messaging, found that it has increased since Election Day 2008.

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