Spelman College historian analyzes Obama: ‘So far I would give him a B’





So what should we make of Barack Obama’s rise to the presidency? And what does his journey tell us about the United States and how the country’s attitudes about race have evolved?

Since Obama’s candidacy began, a barrage of writers and pundits have been trying to answer those questions. Now author William Jelani Cobb, an associate professor and chair of the history department at Spelman College, tries to tackle them in his new book, “The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress.”

Surprisingly, the book does not dwell on the president’s first year in office to provide clues. Instead it looks at candidate Obama’s peculiar relationship with the old guard of the civil rights movement and, among other things, the carefully scripted language he used about race during the campaign. In an edited conversation, Cobb, who just returned from a Fulbright teaching fellowship in Russia, talked about politics, paradoxes and possibilities.

Q: What did the students in Moscow think of your take on the 2008 election?

A: I was teaching African-American history at Moscow State University. At the beginning of the semester I took a picture of a group of slaves on a plantation and a picture of Barack Obama being sworn in as president and I said over the course of the semester we will explain how we went from the picture [of slaves] on the left to the picture on the right. They were skeptically curious. They were not the biggest fans of his like in some other places I’ve gone....

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