Kirkus Reviews QR Code
THE SUBSTANCE OF HOPE by William Jelani Cobb

THE SUBSTANCE OF HOPE

Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress

By William Jelani Cobb

Pub Date: June 1st, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-8027-1739-9
Publisher: Walker

“What does it mean to live in a country where 64 million people voted to make a black man a president?” asks Cobb (History/Spelman Coll.; To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic, 2007, etc.).

While time alone will reveal the meaning and impact of Barack Obama’s election, the author strives to make early sense of an event of such magnitude that it warranted a New York Times headline (“Racial Barrier Falls in Decisive Victory”) in the same 96-point type used for the Apollo moon landing, Richard Nixon’s resignation and 9/11. Both an observer and participant in the 2008 election—he was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention—Cobb describes the forces and subtle changes in American society that led to Obama’s victory. He notes the election marked the passing of the Jim Crow era; many young African-Americans now first encountered the words “For Colored Only” in museums. Generational hues were apparent in the fact that young people—black and white—were convinced Obama could win. They knew an Obama presidency would not end racism, but would at least “represent a fundamental change in the way this society understands race.” Obama waged a campaign against cynicism and challenged people to believe a black man could be president, and voters responded. Obama won more than 95 percent of the black vote, without the support of traditional civil-rights leaders, who were threatened by racial progress and acted like an old-style ethnic political machine in endorsing Hillary Clinton. Cobb is especially good on the contrast between Obama and Jesse Jackson, whose celebrated work had opened many doors for Obama, but who now failed to inspire most young African-Americans. Obama embodies the face—multiracial and cosmopolitan—of the next generation, and his “ultimate significance may be less as a president than as a harbinger of what comes after his presidency.”

A rich, provocative meditation on the importance of Obama’s election.