BARACK - BE REAL BLACK FOR ME?
One of the more interesting angles of criticism that Barack Obama is enduring at this early point in his (soon to be) Presidential bid is perhaps one that most wouldn't expect: he's not Black enough for some critics.
For background, here's NPR's Mary Curtis summing up some of the key issues. You can also view this NYT article. There's also Debra Dickinson's Salon.com piece, "Colorblind" that flat out says, "Obama isn't Black."
And why isn't the junior senator from Illinois earning his certificate in Official Blackness™? Two primarily reasons: the lesser is that he has a white mother though this probably takes second chair to the bigger reason that's being cited: his father is from Kenya. Ergo, Obama does not trace - in any obvious ways - his roots back through American slavery. By that virtue, Obama is presumed NOT to have an understanding of Blackness in the same way the majority of African Americans do on account of their generational connection to the wages of race, running back 400 years.
This isn't a new issue. As I think I've written about here, tensions between African Americans and West Indian immigrants has risen considerably in many cities, especially in the East, as these two communities have eyed one another warily. To distill the basics of that tension, African Americans see the West Indians are people who didn't have to pay the price for gaining the kind of civil rights and social benefits that are accorded to Black people. West Indians wonder why their American-brethren aren't as well-educated or upwardly mobile as they are. This is glossing over a lot more complexity but it still comes back to the same core points: that for some, Blackness is earned. Merely looking Black isn't enough.
What's ironic about part of this debate though is that, on one hand, the point being made is that Blackness isn't monolithic...except that, in the way that Dickerson frames it, Blackness actually IS kind of monolithic. She writes,
- "At a minimum, it can't be assumed that a Nigerian cabdriver and a third-generation Harlemite have more in common than the fact a cop won't bother to make the distinction. They're both "black" as a matter of skin color and DNA, but only the Harlemite, for better or worse, is politically and culturally black, as we use the term."
Personally, I think what this points out is that Blackness - as well as anti-Black racism - has at least two distinct dimensions: one is historical and one is experiential. The experiential basically would include anyone "who looks Black," at least, Black enough to suffer from the kinds of anti-Black racism that live within the immediate world of human, social interaction: catching a beatdown from cops, being unable to catch a cab, having people cross the street when they see you strolling, etc. For Black immigrants or children of immigrants, these experiences of racism help shape a shared sense of Blackness with others, regardless of genealogy.
However, there is also the historical element of race that arises from the legacy of slavery, of Jim Crow, of myriad laws and practices that have structured not just day-to-day discrimination, but also become embedded in any number of social institutions as well as within the collective psyche of America itself. This is, I think justifiably, a qualitatively different experience of race. After all, a racialized identity is more than the product of your skin color and hair texture. It's also the product of unique strands of history that cannot and should not be forgotten/glossed over even to forge bonds of solidarity with others who may resemble you on one level, but whose lives and experiences trace through very different times and spaces. To deny this difference is to do violence to the historical memory of America's unique brands of racism.
This all said however, I think it's incredibly shortsighted and parochial - not to mention politically moribund - to force that these distinctions be honored to the point of exclusion. I would think the point here is to use people like Obama to reflect the sprawling diversity of Blackness, as a way of suggesting and showing that there is no monolithic Black experience, that this community is built of myriad histories and peoples and that, to discuss "Black issues" means understanding that complexity rather than simply presuming that there's a single "Black agenda" or "Black point of view."
However, it's one thing to say, "Obama's Blackness is different from my Blackness." It's something else entirely to say, "he's not really Black," especially since, in the eyes of most non-Black Americans, these distinctions are completely meaningless. Call me crazy but my perception is that for the majority of non-Blacks, whether Obama's father was born in Kenya or Kansas makes very little difference.
Dickerson argues that one reason she's upset at Obama's popularity is because she thinks Obama's non-slave-roots gives Whites (liberal and otherwise) a pass on White Guilt since they view Obama as a "different" kind of Black person, one not encumbered with constantly reminding them about what their ancestors did to his ancestors.
That's an intriguing idea except that it, in my mind, gives "the average American" far too much credit into actually taking into account national origin when it comes to race. She only need to ask any Asian American or Latino American - whether first or fourth generation - if our experiences with other Americans is any different based on how long our families have been here. (Hint: the answer would, "hell, no.")
Some non-Blacks might see Obama differently from other African Americans but I have a hard time believing this is any more than a relative handful. If Obama were to make any kind of Presidential ticket, I doubt the majority of Blue or Red state voters would see him as the son-of-a-Kenyan-national-and-white-mother rather than, "that Black guy running for Prez/VP." It is, of course, unfortunate that Obama's Blackness will inevitably be an inescapable part of his campaign (just ask Harold Ford...or heck, Tony Dungy or Lovie Smith) but insofar as that's true, it seems highly doubtful that he'll be seen as anything BUT Black to the majority of voters deciding to cast for him or not.
In any case, I wanted to also take time to include the perspective of Joan Morgan, writing on Mark Anthony Neal's blog. Joan is Jamaican-born, South Bronx-raised and she has this to say, especially in regards to Dickerson's article:
- "...it should be painfully obvious (and I'm mean painful as in post-verbal-ass-whooping painful) that when it comes to Blackness that African-Americans do not hold the monopoly. Nor do they hold the monopoly on the equally painful legacy of colonialism, slavery and imperialism that descendants of West African slaves have experienced around the globe. Same shit, different boat."
"...when are folks like me, we "Voluntary Immigrants of African Descent" considered Black? Because according to Dickerson and brother man in the barbershop it certainly isn't doesn't happen when I look in the mirror every morning and damn sure see a black face. I don't get that honorary pass every April 15th when I pay my taxes or on the daily as I raise my American born black son."
"When black people immigrate to America we are not at all exempt from the experience of being Black American and not only because we will inevitably be subjected to American racism. We learn your history. We absorb your culture. Some of us even acquire your accents. We do this as a matter of both acclimation and survival because we recognize the potential power we unleash by finding the distinct commonalities between our histories and our culture."
"Because really, the difference between rice and peas and black eye peas is hardly as great she, the barber or anyone else questioning Obama's blackness might think. It's the distance between stops on slave ship."
UPDATE: Just to hone in on part of what I'm skeptical about...one of the reasons that's been given for Obama's popularity - specifically amongst White folk - is that his immigrant heritage allows White, whether consciously or unconsciously, a free pass out of White Guilt over slavery. Just to be upfront, I'm already skeptical over whether White Guilt actually exists to begin with; I don't see a host of examples, especially in contemporary times, where a mass of White voters have done much in the name of resolving America's slavery past. In fact, the only people I usually see trotting out the White Guilt thesis is White Supremacists (or at least political conservatives) who argue that the only reason why policies such as Affirmative Action or the Fair Housing Act exist is because White liberals allow White Guilt to influence their actions. There's a grain of logic in there somewhere but to me, that would be called "White Responsibility" or better yet "social justice." But let me not digress.
So, if I understand the argument correctly, here's the thinking of the average Obama supporter (White): "man...that Obama sure is great! He's so articulate, so fresh, so clean. And best of all, because he's a 2nd generation immigrant, when I think of him, I'm not reminded of all the terrible things my ancestors may have done to Kunte Kinte and his people 200 years ago!"
Not being White, I can't speak from personal experience, but does that last thought actually enter into the minds of White people when they think about Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton or hell, Michael Jordon or Denzel Washington? Just so we're clear, I'm more than willing to believe that any number of racists thoughts may enter one's subconscious when Black and White meet but 1) White Guilt over slavery isn't high up that list and 2) I'm not at all convinced that someone like Obama wouldn't trigger White Guilt (if it exists)
 Given Kenya's colonial past with European powers however, who's to say?