What Obama Means


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 Saturday Night 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.