The Obama Effect

English professors analyze literary work of President Obama

September 2, 2011

"The Obama Effect," released in October 2010, offers an interdisciplinary analysis of President Barack Obama’s historic 2008 presidential bid and the cultural effect his election has had on America.

The only chapters that focus on the president’s literary accomplishments are contributed by two University of Richmond faculty, English professors Suzanne Jones and Bertram Ashe.

Both Ashe and Jones offer a literary analysis of the President’s most famous non-fiction work, his memoir, "Dreams From My Father," which Ashe calls “a work of art.”

Ashe says he was drawn to study the book not only because of the rising political status of its subject and author, but because its themes overlap perfectly with the topic of a book he’s writing—on something he calls the post-soul aesthetic.

“The post-soul aesthetic is a post-civil rights movement era that surfaced in the mid-1980s with the release of [Spike Lee’s movie] 'She’s Gotta Have It,'” Ashe said. “It offered a look at blackness that was far less reverential, and far more irreverent in terms of how we talk about and deal with racial issues.”

Ashe says the movement opened the door to play with the definition of ‘blackness.’ He says that the president’s struggle to determine his own racial identity fits perfectly into the movement.

“A number of books came out right around that time about African Americans who grew up biracial or black, but in bicultural situations,” he said. “They had a foot in the black world and a foot in the white world, and the experience was seen as transformative and beneficial. Previously, most people who were in those situations saw themselves as being tragic because they were caught between the two.”

Ashe argues that it’s this duality, President Obama’s ties to both cultures, which made him a particularly appealing candidate during the 2008 election.

“For better or worse, electoral politics in this era that we’re in has people thinking, ‘I want a leader who seems like me’,” Ashe said. “You so often hear, ‘He seems like a guy I could sit down and have a beer with.’ This also plays into this rise of Sarah Palin. People feel like she’s one of them.”

While this image helped the president get elected, Ashe says it may work against him now that he’s in office.

“I think part of why some think he’s struggling is because the various constituencies may have projected on him what they thought he was or what they wanted him to be,” he said. “And maybe he’s turned out not to be that. He was able to present this image that allowed people to project onto him what they thought they saw and go, ‘Boom, I like that guy, I’m voting for him’.”

Ashe is still in the draft stages of his book, and says his essay on Obama will make up just one chapter of the work. He’ll also examine other prominent political, musical, and pop culture figures.

Suzanne Jones, who specializes in the study of southern literature, says she decided to analyze the president’s autobiography as part of a larger study she was completing on the re-emergence of the biracial character in the American imagination.

She was studying a broad spectrum of mediums: novels, biographies, and family histories. "Dreams From My Father" fit perfectly into her research.

Jones’ essay focused on the President’s path to self-identify as African American and how Americans have reacted to that decision.

“It was one of the hardest essays I’ve ever written,” she said. “I was of course writing about the book he had written, but I was writing about it in the context of how everyone was reacting to him. I’m not writing about him coming to terms with his racial identity, but how other people perceived him and how the American public had to come to terms with his racial identity.”

She says younger Americans particularly have had a hard time understanding why the president does not identify as biracial, but that it isn’t as much of an issue for older generations.

“In some ways I don’t think the average American understood the history of identifying as African American. Older people did, and it goes back to that old “one-drop” rule that unfortunately existed for a long time—that if you had one drop of African American blood in you, then you were considered black.”

Jones says that the rule is being bent and broken now by figures like President Obama and Tiger Woods, who famously stated he identifies himself as Cablinasian—a combination of his four heritages: Caucasian, African American, American Indian, and Asian.

Jones says she too will incorporate her essay into her next book, which she hopes will provide a modern context for America’s ever-shifting definition of race.

Originally printed in the spring 2011 issue of Artes Liberales.