What Obama Means:...For Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Future

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"This is our moment. This is our time," Barack Obama declared in his victory speech the night he was elected president. Such a moment is an opportunity to explore who we are, where we've been, and what the emergence of a leader like Obama can tell us about our culture, our politics, and our future. Jabari Asim provides the context needed to understand what the Obama presidency means to Americans of all backgrounds and shows that Obama's election is evidence of the progress that has been made in healing wounds and broadening America's concept of

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What Obama Means:...For Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Future

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"This is our moment. This is our time," Barack Obama declared in his victory speech the night he was elected president. Such a moment is an opportunity to explore who we are, where we've been, and what the emergence of a leader like Obama can tell us about our culture, our politics, and our future. Jabari Asim provides the context needed to understand what the Obama presidency means to Americans of all backgrounds and shows that Obama's election is evidence of the progress that has been made in healing wounds and broadening America's concept of leadership and inspiration.

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Editorial Reviews

Richard Thompson Ford
What Obama Means dispatches a formidable battery of references to pop and high culture with the machine-gun pacing of a music video. Often, the results are both entertaining and insightful. Asim's enthusiasm for his subject keeps the reader engaged, and the strength of his underlying thesis about changing race relations usually grounds his heavily anecdotal exposition.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
In this exultation of everything Obama, author and magazine editor Asim (The N Word) takes a more historical approach to the 43rd President than his title would suggest, focusing more on pop-culture and political forebears than the consequences of Obama's election and presidency. Asim notes the influence of Michael Jackson and Prince, Duke Ellington and Dizzie Gillespie, Jay-Z and Usher, Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock, Jesse Jackson and Colin Powell-among many others-taking in the sweep of African-American empowerment and its drastic effects for Americans of every race. Asim deftly handles the intricacies of Black oratory, like Barbara Jordan's 1976 Democratic national convention keynote speech outlining the legacy of language, and responsibility, that Obama inherits (especially regarding MLK and the context of religion). Though Asim's goal-tying Obama to the proper "tradition of African American eloquence "-is, in many chapters, left undeveloped, this is a smart, easily-accessed history of African Americans in the public eye, suitable more for pop-culture enthusiasts than serious students of history or sociology.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
The editor-in-chief of the NAACP's The Crisis magazine conducts a celebratory tour d'horizon of the cultural and political developments that paved the way for Barack Obama's rise. Surely, Obama's writing, oratory and first-class campaign are most responsible for his historic election, but he also had the judgment and courage to understand the country's readiness to elect its first African-American president. Asim (The N Word, 2007, etc.) identifies and explains the significance of many of Obama's cultural antecedents from the world of sports (Arthur Ashe, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods), music (Prince, Michael Jackson, Jay-Z), movies (Sidney Poitier, Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington), television (Bill Cosby, Dennis Haysbert) and politics (Shirley Chisholm, Doug Wilder, Jesse Jackson). He convincingly demonstrates how these icons had already helped shape society in a fashion that enabled Obama's breakthrough. To a generation raised on The Cosby Show, "accustomed" to a black president through TV shows like 24 and familiar with authoritative, real-life figures like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, the Illinois senator's seemingly effortless ability to bridge the black and white worlds appears unremarkable. To Americans tethered less to history than to video-sharing and text messaging, Obama's articulate, multicultural, charismatic cool means far more than his connection to a tradition of black, activist intellectuals that stretches back to Frederick Douglass. Occasionally, Asim trips over his own argument. It's unclear, for example, how comedian Sarah Silverman's "fearless" and "irreverent" use of racial stereotypes on Obama's behalf measurably differs from the blackface satire of SaturdayNight Live or the recent film Tropic Thunder, or how, precisely, Obama has exploited the cultural fixture of the "Magic Negro" while simultaneously subverting it. For the most part, though, Asim places a sure finger on the culture's pulse, ably reporting the signal factors contributing to a moment of societal transformation that Obama appears to have mastered. An alert, thoroughly readable assessment of a candidacy that seemed unlikely only to those who weren't paying attention.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061711350
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 1/5/2010
  • Pages: 220
  • Sales rank: 1,021,351
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Jabari Asim is the author of the critically acclaimed The N Word. He is editor-in-chief of The Crisis—the magazine of the NAACP—and former editor at and frequent contributor to the Washington Post, and his writing has appeared on Salon.com and in Essence, the Los Angeles Times, and other publications. He divides his time between Maryland and Illinois with his wife and five children.

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Read an Excerpt

What Obama Means

...for Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Future

By Jabari Asim
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 2009

Jabari Asim
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780061711336

Chapter One

What Cool Can Do

A young man grows up as the only son of a white mother and a brilliant, misunderstood black father who has drowned his early promise in drink. The young man broods a lot and hones his craft amid a multicultural crowd of energetic young people. Despite being clearly talented, he attracts critics who suggest that he's overly ambitious, just a kid. Perhaps he should set his sights a little lower, bide his time. He struggles, endures unfulfilling relationships, experiments with self-destructive behavior. In the end, though, he prevails. He mounts the stage amid great expectations and leaves it to great applause.

If you've seen Purple Rain, Prince's 1984 Oscar-winning film, the plot I've described is quite familiar to you.

Any resemblance between Barack Obama's real-life story and Prince's fictional one is entirely coincidental. After all, Prince starred in that big-screen musical long before most of us had ever heard of Obama. But its biracial themes and Prince's aggressive pursuit of a multiracial image bear closer observance. For in many ways, the path to success pursued by Prince, Michael Jackson, and black performers who have followed their trail anticipated—and helped pave—the road that Obamatraveled on his way to the White House. What's more, the world they describe—one free of racial obsessions—closely resembles the American society that Obama calls for and that his followers enthusiastically applaud.

There were successful multiracial bands before Prince and the Revolution hit the scene, and their two-tone racial makeup has been as much a subject of historical discussion as the quality of the music they produced. Still, in a society constricted by Jim Crow laws and customs that governed concert halls, hotels, railroads, radio stations, and more, there's no question that those early bands desegregated at considerable risk. Benny Goodman took a big chance when he added Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson to his band in the mid-1930s, a time when racial separation was intensely observed in popular music.

Decades later, when Jimi Hendrix emerged as a guitarist of singular gifts, the risks were still there. Having honed his skills on the "chitlin' circuit" as a sideman with various black R & B outfits, Hendrix gained fame as an international rock star after woodshedding in England. He electrified a genre and redefined expectations in much the same manner as guitarist Charlie Christian did when he joined forces with the Goodman band. But unlike Christian, Hendrix was front and center, the obvious leader of a trio that, initially, was otherwise all white. While white fans mostly embraced him, some grumbling arose in black communities. A thread of criticism arose that Obama would find nauseatingly familiar: Hendrix, some said, wasn't "black enough."

By 1969, Hendrix "was said to be under pressure from black militants seeking to interest him in political causes," according to The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll. He found himself in another predicament to which Obama has been no stranger. Stuck between constituencies, "he was clearly caught in yet another situation where he wanted to please everybody, and was willing to stretch himself to do so."

Sly and the Family Stone, contemporaries of Hendrix whose influence continues into the present, encountered less resistance to their integrated lineup. Outrageous where Hendrix was soft-spoken, the charismatic Stone often overwhelmed his critics. In songs like "Everyday People" and "You Can Make It If You Try," he charmed black and white audiences alike with his relentless, upbeat funk. "You Can Make It If You Try," repeated like a mantra against a driving backdrop of brass, drums, bass, and electric keys, is both a highly danceable exhortation and a timely kick in the pants, roughly equal to saying "Yes We Can" while also acknowledging the need for personal effort and responsibility. Like Will.i.am's creation, it's an ode to optimism, the seeds of which, after a long gestation, are finally beginning to blossom. As hard as it may be to imagine, admirers described Stone in language reminiscent of that found in various profiles of Obama.

"Sly was a philosopher, preaching a message of total reconciliation," notes veteran rock writer Dave Marsh. In his persuasive view, Stone's approach "could heal all wounds," providing whites and blacks with "a meeting ground where they could work out their mistrust."

In so doing, musicians like Stone, for all their flamboyance and flouting of convention, ultimately performed a patriotic service. (Hendrix, a veteran of the 101st Airborne, talked with Dick Cavett about his astonishing, revisionist "Star-Spangled Banner" on Cavett's late-night talk show. "All I did was play it," he explained. "I'm an American, so I played it.") Through their lyrics and integrated lineups, and in casting a spotlight on audience members of various hues dancing and clapping to the same beat, they supplied critical cues to generations growing up under their influence. Undoubtedly their audiences included Americans wrestling with questions of identity and belonging that define both our individual and national quests. Or, as Obama put it when discussing his own life, "I learned to slip back and forth between my black and white worlds, understanding that each possessed its own language and customs and structures of meaning, convinced that with a bit of translation on my part the two worlds would eventually cohere."

By creating a common melody from those fragments of culture, Stone, Hendrix, and other like-minded musicians revealed tantalizing glimpses of a more perfect union.

Building on their efforts, Prince took calculated aim at "crossover" success. As Obama has done in politics, he avoided identifying explicitly with race by forgoing an explicitly "black" sound, deemphasizing bass and horns, and eventually favoring a rock-flavored electric guitar over his earlier, synth-based recordings. After he straightened the bushy Afro he wore for his first album cover, Prince successfully crossed over from the R & B charts, scoring a pair of top ten pop hits. A few albums later he started wearing neo-Edwardian costumes, was named Rolling Stone's Artist of the Year, and copped an Academy Award. On the way to that trip to the podium, Prince successfully advanced the idea of a raceless utopia enriched by confidence, sensuality, and rhythm—or, as he put it in "Uptown," "Black, White, Puerto Rican, everybody just a-freakin'." His concerts amassed dancing fans of all ethnic varieties in an orgy of powerful, occasionally conflicting impulses—sex, salvation, and rebellion—that he somehow made work. All the while he toyed with a shape-shifting racial—and sexual—identity. "Am I black or white?" he asked in "Controversy." "Am I straight or gay?"


Excerpted from What Obama Means by Jabari Asim Copyright © 2009 by Jabari Asim. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Prologue: Convergence 1

1 What Cool Can Do 21

2 Love and Basketball 47

3 At the Threshold 71

4 Leading Men 96

5 Figures of Speech 118

6 Brothers from Other Planets 147

7 Fired Up 172

8 The Tattered Veil 190

Epilogue: The New Black, the New America 213

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 7, 2013


    Hate Obama. I give it ? stars

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