The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress
William Jelani Cobb
Walker & Company, 2010
167 pp, Notes, Index

The title of William Cobb’s fourth book is related to several things. When Barack Obama was the junior senator from Illinois, he heard a sermon delivered by the infamous–and now strangely quiet–Reverend Jeremiah Wright, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, where Obama, his wife and daughters once worshiped, entitled The Audacity of Hope. Obama used the title of the sermon as the title of his second book. Reverend Wright, however, would have borrowed it from the apostle Paul’s letter to the Hebrews: Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Cobb shows us that for once in a very long time white and black Americans voted their hopes and not their fears.

Few of us who watched the presidential campaign of 2008 will forget that in some ways it was a very surreal experience. Here was a black man knocking off the white power structure to emerge as the Democratic nominee for the presidency of the United States. And here was a large swath of white America enthusiastically supporting that same man. I experienced that same disconnect on a personal level, too. I live between Grandview Heights and Upper Arlington, and driving through these predominantly white neighborhoods with their yards dotted with Obama signs always left me with the expectation that I would soon hear Rod Serling announce I had entered the Twilight Zone! Furthermore, I sheepishly admit that I assumed the vast majority of those same white voters would say on election day “Just kidding.”

In ways large and small, Cobb’s slim volume reminds us of how far America has traversed to get to this point. Two incidents with white voters leap off the page. First, there was the rural white Pennsylvania couple who, when questioned by a white Obama campaign worker, admitted without hesitation: “We’re voting for the nigger;” second, the white Atlantan who said “I know he’s a nigger, but I just don’t trust McCain on the economy.” During any other election those three people would have been solidly behind the Republican candidate, if for no other reason than race. Yet they took the leap of faith–albeit one tinged with racism–Obama asked of every crowd he addressed and forty three percent of white Americans cast their ballots for the first African American to win the nomination of a major American political party.

Obama not only had to appeal to whites, he had to dismantle the black Democratic Machine left over from as far back as FDR’s New Deal. Most of them were male, and they were part of the generation that had suffered severe beatings during the Freedom Rides, braved Bull Connor’s fire hoses, helped to organize Freedom Summer and marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge for the right to vote. They were also solidly behind the white, liberal establishment candidate, New York Senator Hilary Rodham Clinton. As Obama drew rock-star crowds and racked up primary victories, the black political establishment became more nervous and strident. They claimed Obama did not appreciate black history because his father was a black African and his mother was white. It was said he lacked deference for the Old Guard civil rights veterans as represented by Andrew Young, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Maxine Waters, Charles Rangel and the revered and respected John Lewis. Many critics of Senator Obama pointed to his thin record in the Illinois state legislature and the United States Senate. Obviously he was too young–it was suggested he wait until 2016 to run–and could not possibly win. Andrew Young even claimed that Bill Clinton was as black as Obama and “had probably bedded more black women during his lifetime than the senator from Illinois.”

Accept for a few stumbles, Obama cooly swatted those concerns away. He compared the colonialism of Kenya that had kept his paternal grandfather trapped in the status of a cook and house boy to American Jim Crow. He told a crowd in Selma, Alabama, that because of their courage, his grandfather was able to envision a better future for his son, Obama’s father, who as a boy had herded goats, but as a man had gone to America and earned a Ph.D.

The Substance of Hope is not all about race, however. Cobb reminds readers that other forces were at play: Obama’s skill at campaigning, a loving wife and family, generational replacement, hope, stubborn pride, social media and open mindedness among blacks as well as whites. In the presidential election of 2008, Barack Obama told America and the world that the dream of the Founding Fathers was available to all.

Lest we get carried away by Obama’s historic win, Cobb shows us that the 2008 presidential election is also a cautionary tale. As Obama said on election night: Change has come to America. In The Substance of Hope, Cobb reminds us that yes, America has changed, but perhaps not as much as the election of Barack Hussein Obama suggests. Yet hope springs eternal.


Dr. Marilyn K. Howard earned a BA in criminal Justice from Ohio Dominican College; an MA in political science from The Ohio State University (Thesis: The Entrance of Black Voters Into the Mississippi Electorate) and her PhD in American history from The Ohio State University (Dissertation: Black Lynching in the Promised Land: Mob Violence in Ohio 1876 - 1916). She is an associate professor in the Department of Humanities at Columbus State Community College. Dr. Howard has twice received the Distinguished Teaching Award from Columbus State, and was twice recognized as an outstanding staff member by the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development. She was also named a top educator by Ohio magazine. Dr. Howard has served as an editor of the Southern Historian, a freelance book critic for the Columbus Dispatch and Ohioana Library. She has published essays in a number of anthologies, including the Encyclopedia of Racial Violence in America and the Encyclopedia of Jim Crow. She continues to conduct research on the lynching of black men by white mobs in Ohio.