“Provocative and compelling.” —New York Newsday
“Both entertaining and insightful.”—Washington Post Book World
“It should be on the required reading list.” —Chicago Sun-Times
What Obama Means by Jabari Asim, renowned cultural critic and author of The N Word, is a timely and sharp analysis of how the “Obama phenomenon” exhibits progress in American politics and society. A frequent guest and commentator on “The Colbert Report,” “The Today Show,” NPR’s “Diane Rehm Show” and many other media programs, Asim also examines how cultural and political forces led to the watershed 2008 presidential election while indicating what the election means for every American.
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About 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.
Read an Excerpt
What Obama Means
...for Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Future
By Jabari Asim
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 2009
All right reserved.
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.
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