Feb/Mar 2009

Signifier In Chief

Salim Muwakkil


Jabari Asim’s previous book, The N Word (2007), employed the notorious racial epithet to illuminate the history of American white supremacy. Now Asim, the editor of the NAACP’s bimonthly magazine, The Crisis, employs a similar technique in What Obama Means to study a new chapter in our country’s racial history—the election of our first black president. Acknowledging that Obama, like race itself, conveys a series of shifting meanings, Asim traces African Americans’ evolving image through a narrative of cultural history, highlighting several fulcrums in that history to help explain the unlikely formative saga of President Barack Hussein Obama.

Asim lays special stress on racial “breakthroughs” in music, athletics, politics, and culture. He mines cultural ephemera for unusual insights, as when he compares Obama’s interracial life story to that of pop star Prince in the 1984 movie Purple Rain and notes that both men are portrayed by the same nonblack actor (Fred Armisen) on Saturday Night Live. Asim is doing more here than indulging a fondness for pop-cultural trivia; he lends valuable nuance to race-inflected images that many of us take for granted by fleshing out their historical contexts. For example, he frames Armisen’s portrayals within the American tradition of blackface entertainment. Asim implies that America’s enduring fascination with this kind of racial posturing speaks to a cultural anxiety that Obama’s prominence has helped quell.

Similarly, in addressing the pop-cultural legacy of Prince, Asim doesn’t settle for the surface impressions, instead contending there’s a causal link between Prince’s multicultural music-making and Obama’s multiracial political appeal. The “path to success pursued by Prince, Michael Jackson and black performers who have followed their trail anticipated—and helped pave—the road that Obama traveled on his way to the White House,” Asim writes. “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’s a strong formal affinity in how these two racially pioneering cultural heroes express themselves, Asim observes: “As Obama has done in politics, [Prince] avoided identifying explicitly with race by forgoing an explicitly ‘black’ sound, deemphasizing bass and horns and eventually favoring a rock-flavored electric guitar.”

As New York Times columnists Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich repeatedly demonstrate, pop culture teems with metaphors and allegories that can make our political drama more comprehensible. Asim dips deeply into this well, and much of What Obama Means supplies lively and provocative variations on this technique, contrasting, for example, the tension-fueled racial encounters in Stanley Kramer’s 1967 message film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, featuring Sidney Poitier as a model professional black man engaged to a white woman, and the hit Fox action drama 24, which matter-of-factly launched itself with black actor Dennis Haysbert playing the president.

While such frequent recourse to pop-culture analogies may seem at times strained (as can the work of Dowd and Rich), for the most part Asim ably connects the dots that led Obama—and the country—to the extraordinary racial breakthrough of Election Day 2008. He notes, for example, that Obama sits solidly in the tradition of “cool” in black culture, citing his unlikely appearance (“alongside movie stars and pop singers”) on the cover of Ebony’s August 2008 issue featuring “The 25 Coolest Brothers of All Time.” Asim suggests that Obama’s public image as an embodiment of coolness could provide residual benefits for black culture, especially by valorizing intelligence and scholastic achievement.

Asim stops short, however, of the voguish notion that Obama’s election has moved the country overnight into a “postracial” phase of its history. He makes a point of engaging the more militant cultural thought of those he calls race men, writers like Haki Madhubuti and Amiri Baraka, who are “former young lions turned gray eminences.” Such figures, too, figure prominently, Asim argues, in the complex cultural dynamics that helped make Obama’s election possible. “Our history here forcefully reminds us that we will always—always—need some individuals among us willing to watch our backs,” he writes. “That’s where race men and women come in. . . . [A]s long as racial disparities exist, as long as there are problems particular to black people, loyal advocacy is not only desired but also required.”

Asim draws on the legacies of race men such as W. E. B. DuBois, Henry Highland Garnet, and Frederick Douglass to draw out the broader significance of some key notions of racial identity that have attached themselves to Obama, such as the suggestion early in the primary season that the candidate wasn’t “black enough.” Asim contends that the African-American community in the twenty-first century has become too disparate to fit one definition of blackness. Obama’s election may not spell the end of oppression, he says, “but it exposes the fallacy of referring to all black Americans . . . as oppressed specifically because of their blackness.” Obama’s rise should lay that premise to rest, Asim argues; as Obama himself noted, we risk becoming “entombed in nostalgia.”

What Obama Means doesn’t offer the definitive account of the new president’s significance that its title promises. The next four years, after all, will be taken up with delineating the scale of this historic turn in our cultural and political life. But in its compact, quietly ambitious way, Asim’s book bristles with insights that will prove indispensable to making sense of the Obama era.

Salim Muwakkil is a Chicago-based journalist and a senior editor at In These Times magazine.

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