Obama’s ways cool to some, new to others

WASHINGTON — For many young Americans, there was nothing special about watching President Barack Obama on the dance floor, bumping his hips against his partner’s to the beat of Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours.” After all, this was in keeping with the country they grew up in, a place where black and white culture meld into something wholly American.

“This is why the younger generation supported him,” said Rudolph Byrd, a professor of African-American studies at Emory University in Atlanta.

“Black culture has become part of American culture for black and white youths, and culture is the foundation for the formation of identity,” Byrd said. “In their eyes, Obama is a real cool guy, like Will Smith. He’s like the hip black friend you have, so it was never a stretch for them to visualize him as president.”

For some older Americans, Obama’s ease and embrace of black culture might take some getting used to.

After all, it’s safe to say that no president in history could have moved as smoothly as Obama did on Inauguration Day between contrasting environments. Hours after taking the oath of office in a solemn ceremony on the steps of the Capitol, the president was busting a move at the Youth Ball and slow dancing to Beyonce at the Neighborhood Ball. In between, he managed to perfect the traditional presidential waltz with the first lady at more stately affairs such as the Commander-in-Chief Ball.

His ease on the dance floor sparked an observation from actor Jamie Foxx. “You could tell that’s a black president by the way he was moving,” Foxx cracked to the media.

There is no doubt, observers said, that the president is at ease with the vernacular and cultural mannerisms commonly associated with African-Americans. Obama, a Harvard-educated lawyer, is as comfortable conversing with hip-hop artists as addressing the world as the American president. Recently during a visit to Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington, Obama paid his bill and answered “we straight” when the waitress asked if he wanted change back. In introducing the first lady at several balls, he referred to her as “the one who brung me.” And at one point, he used the term “old school,” in referring to the music of an earlier generation.

When greeting men he knew, Obama often exchanged the “brotherhood clasp,” grabbing the other’s hand, pulling shoulders together and slapping the back. It is a gesture that was born in the hip-hop culture, and for many men, it is considered more masculine than hugging and more personal than a handshake.

“It is a cultural hug that transcends race, shows affection, camaraderie and respect,” said Benjamin Chavis, former executive director of the NAACP who now is the president of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network. “It says to a man that I not only am glad to see you, but I respect you.

“What it tells us about President Obama is that he stands in the middle of two generations. He is old enough to relate very well to the civil rights generation but also young enough to relate to the hip-hop generation, and that is why he got such enthusiastic support,” Chavis said. “Obama is the first urban president, and he celebrates what it means to live in an urban center.”

As the hip-hop culture, born three decades ago in the South Bronx among blacks and Latinos, has become more mainstream over the past two decades, the gestures and lingo generated there have become more acceptable in the general population. It is now just as likely for white men to greet one another with the brotherhood clasp. These days, young people listen to the same music, wear the same kinds of clothes and speak the same language.

Obama also walks with a swagger, a motioned step common with young black men, according to Bryant Marks, a social psychologist at Morehouse College.

“It’s not overly done, but it’s there,” Marks said, explaining that in the black community it means general confidence and attitude in a man’s walk. “He is an educated black man, but there is no indication that he is selling out his blackness or compromising his black identity. Like Dr. Martin Luther King, there is a cadence and rhythm in his speech. When you hear him speak, you know that he is black.”

Obama sometimes stirred controversy during the campaign among those who did not understand the meaning of his gestures.

He was criticized when he brushed his shoulder with his hand during a debate. It was a reference to a song by hip-hop mogul Jay-Z _ an artist whose music Obama has said he has on his iPod _ called “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” referring to brushing off undue criticism that is hurled at you. And famously, Obama and his wife were questioned about the fist bump they gave each other, a common expression of congratulations.

Jennifer Lena, a sociology professor at Vanderbilt University, said that while such gestures are common among young people, they can be confusing to older generations.

“There is clearly a conversation going on about whether I have been left out or that everyone is laughing and I don’t understand,” Lena said. “People want to feel included in the conversation, but there is a big cultural divide in America. So the work that happens next is to try to bridge that divide without changing the (cultural) things that are important to America.”

(c) 2009, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.