Obama's election both fulfillment and call for action, author says
Jabari Asim delivers the keynote address Friday.
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12:41 p.m., March 2, 2009----Jabari Asim, the editor-in-chief of Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP, said that the election of Barack Obama as America's 44th president signals that a new era of political, social and economic opportunity has arrived for all of the nation's citizens, including African Americans.

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Asim's remarks were made as he delivered the keynote address during a daylong symposium on the significance of Barack Obama's election to the presidency.

The symposium, sponsored by the University of Delaware's Black American Studies Program, was held Friday, Feb. 27, in the Trabant University Center.

The author of What Does Obama Mean, soon to be released by Harper/Collins, Asim also noted that Obama's election is a continuation of the legacies of Abraham Lincoln, the nation's 16th president, and Martin Luther King Jr., leader of the civil rights movement.

“Our gathering here takes place barely one month after one of the most transformative moments in the history of our nation,” Asim said. “This is a time of goosebumps and chills, of grace notes and gratitude, of excitement that warms the heart and shapes the soul with a recognition that, indeed, nothing is impossible.”

Asim said that the election and inauguration of Obama signals a new age of acceleration, one in which the advances that once took centuries might now be accomplished in a matter of months and years.

“It provides a fleeting glimpse of a bold new era in which more Americans than ever before can achieve escape velocity and burst free of the restraints of history, traveling at the speed of change,” Asim said. “Change has been going on for a long time. Change is woven into the fabric of America so seamlessly that we are not even aware that it is taking place.”

On the other hand, Asim said, change in America at times “comes so slowly that it hurts.”

Citing the 1954 landmark ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court in striking down segregation in Brown vs. Board of Education, Asim noted the decades-long lag in the actual implementation of the court's decision.

The delay came “because the Supreme Court attached to its decision a remarkably curious phrase that said that the schools should be integrated with all deliberate speed,” Asim said, adding, “The court declined to say what that means.”

The result, Asim noted, was that while some black and white children finally met in the classroom, their interaction outside the classroom was postponed for decades in many areas, including Charleston, Miss., the hometown of Morgan Freeman.

“The Oscar-winning actor was disappointed to learn that the local high school still held separate proms, one for black students and one for white students, so he offered to pay for a single prom that both could attend,” Asim said. “That was in 1997, and it took 11 years for the school board to take Freeman up on his offer.”

Asim said that while the students were willing, the school board and parents chose to ignore Freeman's offer, and the prom finally took place 54 years after Brown vs. Board of Education and more than 30 years after black students started attending Charleston High School.

“That was then. Now, our society and our lives are moving at the speed of change,” Asim said. “Where it once took 54 years to respond to a Supreme Court decision, where it may have taken 354 years from the first importation of African slaves to this country to the passage of a major civil rights act, it can now take only five years for a black man to go from being a state senator from Illinois to be president of the United States.”

Asim said he wrote What Obama Means because he wanted to find out how America arrived at the election of its first African American president.

“There were many questions leading up to his election, about the possible impact of Obama's victory, or even his campaign, on American culture,” Asim said. “These were legitimate questions, and I considered them in some detail in my book, but I was more interested in reversing the equation and looking at the impact of the culture on Obama's campaign-what cultural developments led to a moment where we would take such a candidacy seriously.”

Describing Obama's rise to the presidency as a result of “ground level version of harmonic convergence,” Asim noted that it also signified the alignment of irreversible cultural trends, substantial political developments and unstoppable market forces.

“Part of this convergence derives from Obama himself, his charisma, his peerless eloquence, his seemingly effortless mastery of the issues and the clarity with which he presents and pursues his agenda, but none of those qualities countered the fact that he appeared at exactly the right time and place in the course of American events,” Asim said.

Cultural events, Asim noted, include the achievements of African American men who rose to top positions in American art and entertainment, as well as individuals such as Richard Parsons, who earlier this year was named chief executive officer of Citigroup.

Asim said that while newspaper accounts praised Parsons for his steady leadership as CEO of Time Warner, they made no mention of his being the first African American named to be head of Citigroup.

“That's interesting, because when Parsons took the top job at Time Warmer, it was considered important enough to put him on the cover of Newseek with two other men, Kenneth Chenault, CEO of American Express, and Stanley O'Neal, who was then about to become head of Merrill Lynch,” Asim said. “All three men are black, and their rise, Newsweek said, clearly says something about a new level of opportunity now open to talented and dedicated people of color.”

Asim said that Obama also is the beneficiary of the emergence of black leaders in many of America's cities, as well as the eminent status of Colon Powell and the world- wide reverence Nelson Mandela has enjoyed.

“Forbes.com did a piece on the 25 most successful ad spokesmen in the history of television. It is remarkable how many black men on are that list,” Asim said. “Obama has become the human embodiment of a tipping point, the leader and chief beneficiary of a positive social epidemic whose consequences for black Americans and the nation at large can only be good.”

While Obama's election can be seen as a continuance of the legacy established by King and the civil rights movement, Asim said that much work remains to be done on both a national and international level to fulfill King's vision of a country and world without poverty and oppression.

“This moment in history has often been described as a fulfillment of King's dream, and in some ways that is true, but it hardly represents a completion of the journey,” Asim said. “Obama taking office 40 years after King's Poor Peoples' March doesn't mean that poor people are suddenly going away.”

Asim also noted that although King's message seemed to fall on deaf ears during the last years of his life, the shortcomings of violence as a lasting answer to oppression have only served to prove the ultimate effectiveness of King's strategy.

“People quickly grew tired of blind rage, rage so blind in fact, that angry residents of inner cities set fire to their own neighborhoods. Some of these neighborhoods, like Detroit, for example, have yet to fully rise from the smoke and ruble of those furious years,” Asim said. “At the various observances around the country this month and last, time has proved the wisdom and acceptance of King's message.”

Obama's election, Asim noted, suggests that King's promised land is “not some far off dream place,” but lies in sight but “just beyond our grasp.”

“If we trust the wisdom of Rev. King's words, then we must remain in this new moment or risk, in Obama's words, 'becoming entombed in nostalgia,'” Asim said. “This is indeed a time for self congratulation, but it is also an opportunity for all of us to renew our commitment to help America reach its potential by ensuring a path to greatness for all.”

Article by Jerry Rhodes
Photo by Duane Perry

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