Obama: Metaphorically Black or Literally Black?

Surfing through the political-oriented blogs Sunday, I tried to get a sense of the reactions to Hillary Clinton’s concession speech. Frankly, I was surprised by the number of comments from those who still didn’t think Barack Obama was "black" enough to lay claim to being the first African American presidential nominee of a major political party.

The fact that he was raised by his white mother, his Indonesian stepfather, and his two white grandparents has convinced these holdouts that Obama’s upbringing disqualifies him from the right to claim to be African American.

Of all the things we as black people have done to ourselves since we’ve been in America, none of them is more preposterous than this need to authenticate ourselves through this imaginary, ill-conceived litmus test, a measurement whose many permutations all contain the same common denominators – to have experienced at some time during your life a certain amount of shared suffering, poverty, or poverty-level subsistence.

But if the properties of "whiteness" are mostly mythical constructs, then the opposite must also be true – this thing we know as "blackness" is more circumstantial than factual, more anecdotal than fundamental.

If you are black today in America, you are:

More likely to be found on the internet than at a dogfight.

More likely to shop at Home Depot than at a swap meet.

More likely to wear a pair of Dockers than a pair of baggy jeans.

More likely to repair a crack in the driveway than sell crack on the corner.

More likely to contribute to a 401(k) than collect welfare.

More likely to live in a suburb than in a ghetto.

It is an "otherness" that a young, beige-skinned Obama experienced, growing up in mostly all-white environments, an"otherness" that all of us who look like minorities share. This is what qualifies his claim to be an authentic black American. The outsider perspective is a valid common characteristic of African Americans. It is the way an individual has been forced to see the world and how the world has decided to perceive him that binds us, not how much grape Kool-Aid we drank as a child.

Questioning any of the conventional wisdoms that underpin the belief systems of the mythical "authentic" African American prototype can still bring from some quarters an instant arching of incredulous eyebrows, or an immediate fluttering of fingertips across keyboards, both actions radiating a deep loathing towards anyone even daring to think about re-imagining the darker nation. To these holdouts, both black and white, the melanin in a Obama’s skin, a signifier that automatically awards him "outsider" status in the United States, is not sufficient enough to allow him to claim allegiance to his own community.

If we can agree that a culture can be shaped - that it can retain some characteristics and discard others over the passage of time - then I will be pushing mightily to throw away the dogfighting, the crack selling and the ghetto dwelling that we have been passing off as black american culture lately. These negative images we have raised to the level of cultural signifiers are a type of metaphorical posing, a commitment to "keeping it real" that ignores the literal truths we see before our very own eyes everyday.
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jayhay said...

Just ask the folks in West Virginia if he's black enough...

And this reminds of Hillary suggesting that the sexism aimed at her was worse than racism aimed at Obama... it's one of the sad things to see when oppressed people in our society go after each other, instead of the sources of that problem.

I'd say he's black enough...

Brown Man said...

I hear you, Jay. One of the things I try not to do is dismiss alternate points of view immediately - sometimes examining why someone believes the opposite of what you believe helps you to have a better understanding of your own position on an issue.

And I think the distinction is important - in accepting the exotic essence of being different that comes along with being black, while rejecting the negative connotations this brown skin also brings to mind, Obama has taken the country closer to the line between the exotic and the negative than any successful black person mainstream America takes seriously (Colin Powell, Vernon Jordan, etc.).

He plays basketball. He admits he enjoys listening to some rap music. He is not afraid to be seen dancing, or giving his wife some "dap" in public.

Kind of reminds me of the black kids who grew up in mid western or northern suburbs while their parents climbed the corporate ladder who came down South to Spelman and Morehouse to get the "black experience".

There are those, both black and white, like your people in West Virginia, who will always link being black with the negatives they have come to believe are a part of our DNA

jayhay said...

I was looking at a site the other day , I think it was Black Women Vote, and they were talking about the attention that had been given to the Obama/Michelle "dap", how they had seen Feinstein and I think Bay Buchannan copying it on some news show.

Of course, (with some humor) they were aghast! They were listing other black phrases etc. that had been co-opted in general (white) American culture - obviously there are many. And it seems to me that, what is it, "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery"? I think there is this tension between maintaining cultural identity and not so much "assimilation", but to my mind more positively, integration.

I think part of the "is Obama black enough" meme is an expression of that tension. To over-simplify, on one side you have people of mainly a previous generation that tend towards separate cultural identity as a matter of pride in the face of racism, and on the other you have some that accept the diffusion of black culture as a sign of progress for black people, for people in general. At least that's how I see it from the perspective of a white guy!

The clear thing is that we have on center stage in America a black man, a black FAMILY, that can initiate useful conversations, and can shift the center point of discussions of race in our country in a positive direction. That is an amazing gift, no matter what happens in November.

(And P.S. it's "Jim", my screen name is misleading...)

Brown Man said...

Sorry about that, "Jim". If the Obama's can do for America in real life what The Cosby Show did with a fictional TV family, I am all for it.

Center stage - I like that.

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