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.