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Book spotlights black America in Obama era

"Family Affair: What it Means to be African American Today,"  a collection of short, autobiographical essays, attempts to dig beneath the euphoria that swept black America when Barack Obama became president to ask the question: What, if anything, actually changed?
/ Source: Reuters

A new book attempts to dig beneath the euphoria that swept black America when Barack Obama became president to ask the question: what, if anything, actually changed?

Family Affair: What it Means to be African American Today” is a collection of short, autobiographical essays in which 76 black professionals detail how their families played a role in their success, either as springboards, or barriers to be overcome.

It's one of a slew of books published since the November election in which authors examine the changes in U.S. society that allowed Obama, the first African American president, to run successfully.

In essay after essay in “Family Affair”, the short answer to the ‘what changed?’ question comes through: Everything and nothing.

Many of the contributors argue that Obama's election — and their own success — reflect changes brought about by the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

A number credit self-belief in their success, while some also cite their reliance on the classic American virtues of hard work and self-reliance.

“The idea was to provide a platform for African Americans to discuss their issues on their own terms. The black community is often at times framed through someone else's lens,” said editor Gil Robertson.

“It was high time that we take control of how that identity is and how it is seen,” he said in an interview.

“More open climate” to discuss race
The book's contributors include actors, singers, models and business leaders, but surrounding them is the sense that they have emerged from a community that struggles.

Black Americans, who represent around 13 percent of the U.S. population, lag national averages in terms of income, life expectancy, infant mortality, education and health.

Max Siegel, who grew up in an abusive and unstable household and is now an influential sports executive, attributes his success to high self-esteem promoted by some of those who brought him up, despite the challenges.

“They constantly reassured us that we were special and good and that we should be comfortable with that,” said Siegel, who is now president of global operations at Dale Earnhardt, the top motor sports franchise in the NASCAR (North American Stock Car Auto Racing).

Siegel argued that the increasing openness to dialogue about misunderstandings between racial groups was one benefit of last year's election that would have a lasting impact.

“As a society, even though we have a long way to go, the climate is such that we can talk about some of these issues more openly,” he said in an interview.

Actress Hattie Mae Winston reflects in her essay, addressed to her husband of 30 years and entitled “Dear Harold”, on the civil rights era, through which her career grew, and on the sustaining power of love.

She also called for honesty in assessment of the struggles of African Americans.

“When you speak of black people it is within the context of race. Where I am coming from as a human being,” said Winston, who has starred on television, in films and on Broadway.

“All of us have the same desires for our families. It is transcendent and it has nothing to do with race: (It is about) love, problems in relationships, growth as a human being,” said Mae, whose husband Harold Wheeler is a prominent composer.