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Obama Collectibles From Africa on Display and in Scholarly Collection

The Herskovits Library has expanded an exhibition of items from its Africa's Response to Obama collection.

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January 9, 2009 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- For every Obama T-shirt, Obama handbag and pair of Obama pajamas created in this country, there are Obama collectibles created in Africa. And the Herskovits Library of African Studies at Northwestern University -- the largest library of Africana anywhere in the world -- is intently collecting them.

Northwestern's Herskovits Library has assembled what is undoubtedly the largest collection of Obama T-shirts, CDs, buttons, bumper stickers, artwork, posters and other materials created in Africa. And, just in time for the inauguration, it has expanded an exhibition of items from its Africa's Response to Obama collection and extended it through Feb. 27.

Packages of Obama items from Africa arrive almost daily at Herskovits Library curator David Easterbrook's office. As early as 2007, he put out the word to scholars, students and African contacts that he was collecting materials to document the African response to Obama's candidacy and election. A recent BBC Africa interview he did about the collection prompted a steady stream of Obama merchandise and media.

Among his favorite items in the collection are a traditional, hand-carved Obama mask purchased from a wood-carver's stall in Gambia; a bottle of "President Lager" beer from East African Breweries (which produced "Senator" beer upon Obama's 2004 election to the Senate); a "dead ringer" Obama portrait from a Nairobi street vendor; and an illustration of Obama in Superman duds (imagine a red O in place of the S) beside the words "The U.S. Slays its Demons."

While libraries typically don't collect pop culture artifacts, they are an important part of the Herskovits Library. "Obviously we document African history and culture at the scholarly level, but future scholars will want to see how Africa responded to the Obama election at a popular level." The library holds extensive ephemera from 20th century African independence movements and about the life and work of Nelson Mandela.

"These popular materials tell us a great deal about African history and culture," says Easterbrook. "In fact, the Nelson Mandela Foundation requested some of our materials to help them in planning the international celebration of Mandela's 90th birthday."

For more information about the Africa's Response to Obama collection, call (847) 467-5918. For library hours, call (847) 491-7658.

Topics: Campus Life