What Obama Means

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

What Obama Means By Jabari Asim William Morrow 240 pp., $21.99

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.

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.

In 1996, there was a movement to nominate Colin Powell for the presidency. General Powell could perhaps have been then what Barack Obama is today. But Powell’s wife, Alma, said in an interview that she got hate mail, and she believed, “A black man running for president is going to be in a dangerous  position.” Powell didn’t run.

In the mainstream US press, however, Obama had far more supporters than detractors. He was idolized. The Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune both endorsed him. It was a surprise.

“After all,” writes Asim, “the Tribune had never given its blessing to a Democratic candidate. Ever. For 161 years. The Los Angeles Times hadn’t endorsed any candidate for president since 1972.”

Television journalist Chris Matthews made no secret of his own astonishment.  “I’ve been following politics since I was about 5. I’ve never seen anything like this. This is bigger than Kennedy. This is the New Testament,” he enthused.

Some black politicians were less than positive about Obama’s campaign, Asim notes. Andrew Young, the former right hand to the Rev. Martin Luther Jr. and later mayor of Atlanta, said last year that Obama should wait until 2016.

Jesse Jackson Sr. was especially anti-Obama. Last year he was caught on live microphone  using the “n” word and expressing “a desire to manually castrate [Obama].”

(Jackson’s son, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., spoke for his and Obama’s generation: “I’m deeply outraged and disappointed in Reverend Jackson’s reckless statements about Senator Barack Obama.”)

Both Young and Mr. Jackson Sr. most likely voted for Senator Obama. Sen. John McCain got only 4 percent of the black voters, according to exit polling. Senator Obama got 95 percent. No Democratic presidential nominee ever previously received that large a percentage of the black vote.

As for the white vote, Obama received 44 percent (compared with 41 percent for John Kerry in 2004.)

Asim ends his survey of the past and future of race relations with words that are cautious yet joyful: “While this extraordinary, unforgettable time may not be the end of striving, it is, as the very least, a beginning of an unparalleled promise.”

Theo Lippman Jr. wrote about civil rights as a staff member of the Atlanta Constitution and the  Baltimore Sun for 40 years.

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