Author Revisits Obama Comments From 4 Years Ago

Jabara Asim's book is called What Obama Means. Four years ago, he told Steve Inskeep the incoming president was similar to the type of film character mockingly called the "Magic Negro," who redeems the lives of white characters. Asim returns to talk about what President Obama represents four years later, and how his legacy among African-Americans is developing.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News on a special Monday, Inauguration Day. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

The crowds descending on Washington today are not expected to be quite as huge as they were four years ago. Author Jabari Asim notes the mood in the country is also not what it was.

JABARI ASIM: It's not a fever pitch of excitement as it was before, and I think that fever pitch of course, was fueled in part by the difficulty in grasping the reality of a black president; that this has actually happened.

INSKEEP: Four years ago Jabari Asim wrote a book called "What Obama Means." We talked with him on the eve of the president's ascension to the presidency to discuss the symbolic importance of that moment. And in recent days, we invited Jabari Asim back to discuss how that symbolism has held up against the reality of four years in office.

So let me come back to this discussion that we had four years ago, because you said that the president at that moment was like the type of film character that is sometimes described as a Magic Negro, which is a pretty provocative term but is often used in cultural criticism. This character, who's not entirely real but is there some how to save the white characters in a film. That's the kind of character you compared Barack Obama to just before he took office in 2009.

ASIM: Yes.

INSKEEP: He's been the president for a while. He's been in some bruising battles. What is he now?

ASIM: I think he's much more of a regular politician. But I think that's a good thing actually. I think the magic aura, I didn't entirely discount it. Part of the way it manifested itself, I think, in the first election - and people talk about this - was that some white voters voted for Obama because it would help them feel good about themselves, about the direction of the country, and people tended to dismiss this.

And I thought that was, you know, a real factor but I thought it was a laudable factor. I didn't think that it's a terrible reason to vote for someone, because they're helping you to feel better about being an American and about the direction of the country, and your participation in changing the direction of the country.

But I think this time the magic aura was far less manifest. And you can also see that in popular culture with the willingness of entertainers and comedians to make fun of Obama, in a way that they were hesitant to do early in the first term. And I think a lot of the same voters were motivated by a much more practical concerns the second time around, even if the first time there was that aura of magic that helped to impel him to vote in his direction.

INSKEEP: So are you're saying it's actually progress that he gets to be a regular character in the film, rather than this kind of magical character coming off from the side?

ASIM: Very much so. And I hope that influence or that change will also spread into American culture in a way that African-Americans, in general, are perceived. As to paraphrase Hillary Clinton: As regular, hard-working Americans as opposed to exceptional African-Americans.

INSKEEP: You know, it's been a really interesting four years because clearly this is a president for whom the gloves were off - he could be attacked in any way, which is a sign of equality in a way. But some people looked at some of the attacks, like the questioning of his birth certificate and so forth, and saw racial motives are or cynical political motives to try to make the president look like somebody other than an American. I'm wondering how you see the racial aspect of the last four years with this president.

ASIM: Well, I think we have to be careful not to misrepresent the fringe or the mainstream. And I think a lot of what we've seen has made for sexy soundbites. And I know people who have had conversations with people who were opposed to Obama and who did not vote for Obama, and who are not African-American. But I would not characterize their criticism as race based.

INSKEEP: You're basically saying that most people, in your experience, who are opposed to the president, were opposed to the president because they're opposed to his policies. They don't like something about him other than his race.

ASIM: Yeah. And also I think it's also partisan. I mean, these are some of the same people who opposed Clinton's policies or opposed whatever Democratic candidate who was espousing those policies at the time. And I think a lot of that criticism is drowned out or overwhelmed by the birthers and people like that, whom you've cited.

I think, you know, W.E.B Du Bois said the hushing of the criticism of honest opponents is a dangerous thing. And I do think there is a tradition of honest opposition that continues to thrive and express itself.

INSKEEP: Jabari Asim, pleasure to talk with you.

ASIM: Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: Jabari Asim is author of "What Obama Means."

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