Saturday, June 07, 2008

Is He Black Enough?

I now want to address this topic that dominated much of public discourse in the early stages of Barack Obama's historic rise to becoming this nation's first Black president. I think this is worth addressing because it speaks as much to the definition(s) of Blackness in the United States as it does to Barack Obama's right and privilege to carry the banner of hope for the Afro-American constituency in this country. Now, Barack Obama is the son of an White American mother(I am not sure of her ethnicity-Polish? Irish?) and an African father, which means that he personally is not affiliated with the five hundred year legacy of enslaved Africans who toiled in order to build these United States, literally, from the ground up. However, he is apart of the larger African diaspora and his legacy is just as valid here in this country as is those of us whose ancestors were slaves. Let us not even leave out the fact that he is married to an Afro-American woman and is the father of two young Black girls who are very much apart of the legacy of American slavery.

To get even further to the root of this matter, I feel that the issue of biracial presence in the United States must be addressed. This issue,I am inclined to believe, even more so than his African father, leaves this question on the lips of Afro-Americans. I want to address this issue, and write this blogpost, because I have had this discussion with a few people in a few different instances outside of and preceding the presence of Barack Obama. I feel that the Afro-American community does not take a complex enough look at biracial presence--and this is one of the reasons why they have so coldly embraced biracial people. This post, hopefully, will work towards correcting that.

When I was at Purdue there was a girl that lived in my complex whose name I cannot remember, but we got along very well and talked quite often, especially while waiting for the bus to take us to campus. She was biracial, and looked very Jewish, but when I asked, she very readily confirmed and said she was surprised that could tell. One cold winter night, after having together made a mad dash to walmart for something that we needed ( which was right up the street and we thought we would fare better walking together rather than walking along in that slush, cold, and ice), I went back up to her apartment for some nice cocoa and we somehow settled into a discussion of race, biraciality, and her own experiences. She told me of how she had been constantly rejected by Afro-Americans and some of the horrible things she had been called, and also confided in me that it hurt her that many did not define her as a Black person.

After listening to her story, I told her not to worry and to really pay no attention to what some Blacks had been saying to her. I followed this by telling her that the Afro-American community--by its very definition--was an absolutely mixed bag and could not make any claims to a true or pure Blackness. I suggested to her-- how is it that she might have a white mother and a black father and not be black, but if you count no more than two or three generations sometimes in most Black communities and you have white ancestors as well--yet they are Black? I pointed to my own paternal grandfather who I was truly the whitest Black man I have ever seen( it would anger my father if you ever called his father a white man) and my maternal great-great grandmother(who was a quadroon and whose own mother was a white woman).

If the presence of nonBlack or White ancestry or parentage left one not really Black--just imagine how many Black people in this country came from people that weren't really Black? Consider all of the Octoroons and Quadroons and Mulattoes who after the Civil War--when the racial lines were brutally and strictly drawn and mulattoes were forced to make a choice--and chose to become Black(because the White people weren't taking them unless they could pass and get away with it), which led them to find dark-skinned mates so that there children would more easily fit into the Afro-American community. Let us not even leave out the Black Indians and Blacks mixed with Chinese....Consider how many so-called real Black people are the products of these unions.... As in Brazil and other Countries with a colonial past--the ancestral lines lighten and darken as you go up and down the totem pole depending on social and economic positioning.

All of this is suffice to say that claims to true or real Blackness and the efforts to exclude people from the Afro-American community on the basis of biracial existence should absolutely be rethought and done away with. The Afro-American community was founded on inclusion. When the first mulatto babies begot from the master--by either rape or concubinage or whatever the situation may have been-were cradled in the Black hands that birthed them...the Afro-American community has always included and counted biracial people in its ranks.

And so to answer the question, Is Barack Obama Black Enough?-- The answer is absolutely!

1 comment:

British Friend From Purdue said...

I can remember discussing this with you in your apartment, and we mainly approached the topic from your own genealogical background (always enriching, no pun intended!). The question of what constitutes blackness must be addressed from an historical point of view, as you rightly assert. What blackness was, is, has been, and will be is as much to do with ideas as people.

There is nothing 'natural' in decisively locating a biracial person in the category of a single racial group. It is, of course, a socially-constructed habit that is contingent on time and place. Go out of the United States to the 'coloureds' of South Africa or, indeed, to mixed-race Brazilians, and the 'natural' idea of a single 'path' to identification (to which one must not err, lest one face the wrath of a those who have committed to that path themselves) quickly falls away. So, identification must be constructed socially. If so, one's identity will always be changeable depending on which society one is in (even within a single nation, as your friend at Purdue found out).

Concerning Barack Obama, one issue that we have to think about is the political value of blackness. I've seen quite a few photographs of Obama with his wife. Not so many of Obama with his mother. Okay, sure, the mother might have her own reasons for keeping a low profile. But the meaning of 'low' changes when the 'integrity' of blackness promises a lot of black votes. I don't mean that whiteness has lost value. But perhaps biracial identification has? I see African ancestry holding a particular power for multiracial people, but whether that is a 'pulling' power (from attraction) or a 'pushing' power (from those who seek to 'contain' blackness) is unclear. Eurasians, I think, have more choice and flexibility about whether they identify as white, Asian, or biracial. Why is that? That's another story. But I think it illustrates that African ancestry carries very strong values (for some people in some way to some end).

One thing is certain, Obama is going forward as the first 'black' presidential candidate with a chance of winning. What puts him into the 'black' category (voters, lobbyists, the press, black blogs!) is a lot more than his own choice, voluntary or otherwise. There will be many a Purdue essay written on this topic, I'm sure!