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Next generation: Writer Jabari Asim challenges conventional views on race

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 8, 2010 - His sophomore year at Southwest High School in St. Louis, Jabari Asim wrote a story for the school newspaper.

That year, the tennis team Asim played on won the championships. Asim interviewed his teacher and tennis coach, Martin Rogers for the story. Rogers kept that article.

"I clipped it out for one reason," he says. "I thought it was just so well-written. I thought, where's this kid getting this voice?"

Today, at 47, Asim uses that voice to dig into critical issues of race and life in America, from the use of the "N word" to the significance of the country's first black president.

"I think he is socially adept and I think he's socially very aware," Rogers says. "I think that some of the ills that are still festering in the black community bother him, and I think he's trying to speak to things in a different way."

Asim’s poems and essays appear in anthologies. He’s written books for children and young readers. He’s worked his way from community journalism to the Washington Post to the editor of the NAACP’s "The Crisis" magazine and just finished his time as a scholar-in-residence at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to head for Emerson College in Boston, where he’ll be an associate professor of writing, literature and publishing.

In 2009, he published "What Obama Means," and "The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn't, And Why."

This year, his collection of short stories, "A Taste of Honey," tells the fictional tales of life in a north St. Louis neighborhood in the 1960s. 

Asim isn't an activist, he says. He's not a leader, just a writer. However he defines his role, though, his words are being heard, from national radio to national TV, in magazines and books.

Through his work, he’s exploring the world he lives in, examining what it means and sharing what he finds with words and a voice that make it hard not to listen.

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Finding his Voice

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When Asim was 5, his father, a school teacher, took him on a walk through their north St. Louis neighborhood to the library and got his son his first library card.

Asim went on to gobble up all the books he could read.

His world then was his neighborhood, his neighbors mostly black, economically mixed, with a doctor and a judge down the street. To Asim, then Roland Smith, and his five siblings, their Jeff Vander Lou neighborhood was everything, full of all they might ever need.

In the fifth grade, Asim transferred to predominantly white south St. Louis to attend the gifted program at Wade Elementary School. He went on to the slightly more ethnically diverse Southwest High School on the Hill.

Rogers, a biology teacher, remembers young Asim as precocious, curious, always asking questions about social issues, always introspective.

"It was almost as though he was gathering data on how to be an adult," Rogers says.

After graduating from college, Asim's first poem was published.

Though he loved the form, Asim decided he would write anything and everything that paid.

In 1988, Asim, who was already married with two children, was freelancing around town when he met Sylvester Brown Jr., then running the magazine "Take Five."

Brown went to Asim's house to meet with him and found a young writer surrounded by a clutter of pages and stacks of newspapers.

"I read his short story," Brown says, "and it was fantastic."

Asim eventually became an editor with the magazine, and during that time, Brown says, "Take Five" started winning awards, covering politics and social issues.

"Jabari was good," Brown says. "He's always been very good."

What Brown saw in the young writer was discipline and a drive that would carry him on to the St. Louis American. After a brief time editing textbooks, he interviewed and landed a job as a copy editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Asim worked his way through different positions to book editor during his four years there, still writing poetry and staying active with the local poetry community.

Asim next made the move to the Washington Post, where he stayed for 11 years.

But driving him all the time was the desire to write more. He changed his name to Jabari Asim in college to reflect his heritage.

"I wanted to see it on the spine of a book," he says.

Pretty soon, he did.

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The 'N' Word

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Asim grew up in a house where the "N word" was not allowed. Ever. When he started his research for "The N Word," he stepped back from what he'd been taught and decided to see where his work led him.

"What I'm trying to do is not to have an opinion before I start writing," Asim says. "To come to my opinion later."

As a result, he found his view of the word and its use more flexible. "What I learned is that I'm not an absolutist," he says. "I see room for gray."

As a review in Publishers Weekly noted, "Asim is at his best when offering his opinion -- 'in the 21st century, to subsist on our former masters' cast-off language... strikes me as ... an immense, inscrutable, and bizarre failure of the imagination.'"

A review in "Black Issues Book Review" concluded "'The N Word' should be considered among the gold standard of serious attempts to historically ground discussions of American popular culture."

In "What Obama Means," Asim sifts through history and pop culture, through civil rights trail blazers to modern stars charting out the ground laid for the current president that made his presidency possible. The book makes the case that racial progress has been made in our country, and Obama's election is proof of that.

“On the ground level, little has changed for poor and working-class African Americans other than their sense of possibility, which is in itself a leap forward,” Asim says.

As a review in the Washington Post put it, "Asim has the better argument (than conventional left or right commentators): Black politics is undergoing a healthy transformation away from the confrontations of the culture wars and toward a new maturity. This change means that black politicians can faithfully and effectively serve multi-racial constituencies without being seen as sellouts, Americans of all races can grow comfortable with black role models and authority figures, and blacks can acknowledge their internal divisions without fear of disintegration.

"As Asim argues, 'Obama's rise doesn't spell the end of oppression, but it exposes the fallacy of referring to all black Americans as particularly oppressed or oppressed specifically because of their blackness.' "

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Take Notes

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For Asim, words are a vehicle thorough which he tells the story of what's happening now. Sometimes he finds angry arguments. Sometimes it's a clash of voices. Sometimes it's a harmonious chorus.

His job, he says, is to listen.

"Where as I would take sides with political issues and candidates," Brown says, "Jabari would just observe and make it sing."

"I'm not confused about my role and my relevance," Asim says. "I'm not an activist. I don't run a civil rights organization. I'm not running for president. I'm a guy who sits around and takes notes and occasionally shares them with other people."

And people are listening. In addition to his published works, Asim has apeared on television and radio, including the Tavis Smiley Show, the Diane Rehm Show, the Today Show and the Colbert Report.

Today, Asim is the editor of “The Crisis,” the magazine of the NAACP. He will soon start teaching at Emerson College in Boston. He and his wife, Liana, have five children, 9 to 27.

Asim comes home to St. Louis regularly. He won't comment on issues of race in St. Louis in general, he's not here enough to do that with any authority, he says, but he has seen the neighborhood he loved decline.

But in his lifetime, some things have changed.

Growing up and switching from a mostly black school to a mostly white school, Asim quickly noticed the disparities in the education system. White flight has exacerbated that problem.

"Relatively privileged black Americans, such as myself, now have the option of combating those disparities by living in suburbs with elite public schools or by enrolling our children in private schools. The problems remain, but the options are more varied for more black Americans than ever before."

Education is one of the issues Asim is examining now, along with violence in black communities. In "Crisis," he's launched a series called "Saving Our Children" that looks at violence and other issues affecting the black community. Those include health-care disparities, police abuse, educational inequities and obesity.

With his voice, his words and his viewpoint, Asim reminds Brown of another great writer.

"He reminds me of Langston Hughes," Brown says.

Hughes, who became a poet laureate to the black community of his time, had a gift for painting pictures with words of both the struggles and beauties of life for black Americans, Brown says, without indicting anyone.

Now, Asim is doing the same.

"He lets the story tell the story," Brown says. "And that's always been his gift."

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