Breaking Brown

October 12, 2011

My President Is Black (well, sort of); why arbiters of blackness are important

Obama demonstrates his bona fides

I really don’t understand the interventionists who come to Obama’s defense any time someone ostensibly questions his blackness. Being black is about a lot of things, and yes, among those things are the identifiables like hair texture, skin color, and facial features, but there are other more murky endowments as well.

The reason black men keep a fresh cut and black women keep a fresh do is not just because we take pride in our appearance (we do), but because we welcome the affinity of being around kin, especially at the end of a hard week. Without knowing anything about the backgrounds of the people in the shop, you know you can say “giiirrrl did you see that….” or “maaan what about that…” and have people you never met a day in your life race to finish your sentence.  It’s not about race as much as it is about a shared cultural experience and the resulting shared values.

So when people question Obama’s blackness, they’re not questioning his race as much as his anchoring. What we’re asking is whether Obama is anchored in the African American experience.

I’ll be the first to admit that it was downright moronic to mint Bill Clinton as the first black president, but let’s not forget why we bestowed that title upon him; we believed (rightly or wrongly) that Clinton felt our pain. He spoke to our issues in a way that resonated with us, maybe because he enjoyed many of the same things as we enjoyed (Aretha, jazz, good food), but we felt some commonality there.

Contrast our experience with Clinton with that of President Obama, who, up until recently, refused to even utter the word black. Does he feel our pain? And is his indifference (or antipathy, depending on how you read it) toward us a consequence of political expedience or are we really an away game for him? For us, questioning Obama’s blackness is shorthand for questioning his connection to us and our African American experience.

For many people, being black in America has much more to do with our shared inheritance than the difficulty in catching a cab on a busy street, and for my part, I’m still peeved that blackness was boiled down (by Obama) to that single inconvenience during the campaign. The mistake we all made during the Obama campaign was debating whether it was most important how the world viewed Obama or how Obama viewed himself. Was Obama black because the world saw him as black, even if he didn’t share that conclusion, or was he biracial? Once Obama answered that question, and confirmed that he identifies as black and not biracial (“I can’t catch a cab”), the debate was summarily dropped.

But the real question, the real argument, should’ve been over what Obama’s self-definition evoked in him. Is Obama psychologically tied to the struggle, or is he, like so many younger African Americans, just adept at employing the signs and symbols of the struggle in order to achieve advancement? Is he connected to us and fighting for us in the same spirit, if not tactic, as our forbearers, or is he just relying on the political capital of less affluent African Americans in order to achieve his ambitions?

This leveraging of the African American community while simultaneously toasting banksters and profiteers, allocating resources to the super wealthy, and protecting shareholders at all costs, doesn’t speak to what black people came up from. And spare me the Toure’ post racial nonsense. Being black, does, or it should at least, mean something.

The African American experience includes a broad swath of thinkers, activists, abolitionists, and entrepreneurs. I can’t speak to exactly what Ida B. Wells, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, Harriet Tubman, and many others expected. I don’t know, with exact certitude, what their expectations were for the future of black America. But I’d be willing to bet that they didn’t blaze a way forward so that the first black President could sell his soul in exchange for acceptance from their ideological and moral adversaries.

But hey, I guess I’m among the minority since I still view blacks as the nation’s conscience and not just another minority group to be horse traded during election season. I guess now, the expectation for all black people is that we be willing to trade the hope and dream of the slave   for the fulfillment of Obama’s careerist ambitions. Thanks but no thanks. For me, blackness extends beyond Obama, his cronies, and his Harlem clubhouse. Blackness includes all black people, both past and present, and anyone who doesn’t understand that, who doesn’t understand that blackness is not synonymous with selfishness, doesn’t understand us, and isn’t culturally aligned with us.

You can choose to participate in this spectacle, whereby the import of blackness is dumbed down and neutered, but I’m now with it. I’m not down with that “cause”. And I’m certainly not “in”.  Folks who freely celebrate keepin’ it real should learn to recognize a false representation of blackness when they see one. I do.

NOTE: I wrote a “My President is Black” editorial in 2010. Looking back, I think it hints at the trouble to come.




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10 thoughts on “My President Is Black (well, sort of); why arbiters of blackness are important

  1. EdBdCJ says:

    What an incredibly trite and simple assesment you have of “being black in America”. How can you say that Obama “…up until recently, refused to even utter the word black” Are you paying attention? Did you remember the “race speech” during the campaign over the Rev Wright stupidity?

    Its unfortunate that there are black people in America who are unable to comprehend that we are all individuals, with individual tastes and backgrounds. We are not one monolithic group think people who all feel the need to run to the beauty shop every week. Personally, I HATE the beauty shop. The greatest part of having a natural hairstyle is so that I can avoide the ignorant conversations that take place in MOST hair salons. This does not make me less black or not understand the black experience.

    If you walk through this world black, then you are familiar with the black experience.

    As far as the history of black people in America, let’s go back to the hair salon. Usually if/when discussion ventured into history, most people I enountered didnt know their recent, 1960 black history, let alone early American black history or African history. I was CONSTANTLY correcting folk. People didnt read the paper let alone books or articles. So when I corrected a person they told me “Oh you think you white”. WHY? Because I have knowledge of self?!?!? Because I don’t want to do the same things you do? Why is it non-blacks are aloud to be diverse but black folk are expected (by their own) to think EXACTLY alike.

    Have you seen all of the trouble Obama is having with Congress? You know the root of this don’t you? Its the good old white boy system bucking up against our first black president. If you think that is not a “black experience” then you are more ignorant that could be imagined.

    1. Yvette says:

      “How can you say that Obama “…up until recently, refused to even utter the word black” Are you paying attention?”

      Ah, yes! The campaign trail. There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that Obama said and did all the right things while campaigning; my article pertains to governing. I’m judging him as a President, not a campaigner.

      “Its unfortunate that there are black people in America who are unable to comprehend that we are all individuals, with individual tastes and backgrounds.”

      It is unfortunate that we have black people who are willing to put their history and progenitors in a box, who don’t bring their history and rich culture to bear in any substantive way in their dealings with others. That is a shame.

      ” We are not one monolithic group think people who all feel the need to run to the beauty shop every week.”

      I have locs so please, in the future, refrain from such simple nonsense. If you’d taken the time to view my picture in the upper right corner, you could’ve saved yourself some embarrassment.

      ” Why is it non-blacks are aloud to be diverse but black folk are expected (by their own) to think EXACTLY alike.”

      We are allowed to be diverse, we’re just not allowed to forget on whose shoulders we stand.

  2. 1ProudVet says:

    “Though the colored man is no longer subject to barter and sale, he is surrounded by an adverse settlement which fetters all his movements. In his downward course he meets with no resistance, but his course upward is resented and resisted at every step of his progress. If he comes in ignorance, rags and wretchedness he conforms to the popular belief of his character, and in that character he is welcome; but if he shall come as a gentleman, a scholar and a statesman, he is hailed as a contradiction to the national faith concerning his race, and his coming is resented as impudence. In one case he may provoke contempt and derision, but in the other he is an affront to pride and provokes malice.”

    Frederick Douglass
    September 25, 1883

    1. Yvette says:

      The question you should be asking yourself is, would Douglass be proud of Obama’s incarnation of blackness? To come here with a quote is one thing. To actually debate the issue is another thing altogether.

  3. EdBdCJ says:

    No one is forgetting the shoulders on which we stand. What evidence do you have to support such a notion? Should Obama also forget his WHITE mother and his WHITE grandmother. Or his Indonesian step-father as well. No one, not you, not congress not the media, no one will allow Obama to “forget he is black”. Nor does he want to forget. He is raising black children and married to a black woman in this world, therefore he is having the black experience. Period end of story. What more do you want?

    If and that’s a strong if “Obama has not uttered the word black” could it not be because he is president of THE UNITED STATES of America and not only black America. IF GWB or Clinton for that matter said “OK, Black people, this is for you” do you think that would have gone over well?

    I have no shame in how I incorporate my history into my daily life. Simply because it may differ from your method does not mean it does not exist. I wil say the same for Obama. I have absolutely no shame. Not only do I know and live with the American Black history but I live with the history of my baby boomer parents which were born and raised in the South. I know first hand the way my father was treated by white people when he fought in Vietnam. This goes back to my original point. EVERYONE has a different experience in this life. SImply because this experience does not fit into some boxed definition that a few people have decided is “the black experience” does not make it less valid.

    Im embarrased of nothing, dear. You are the one who brought up the beauty shop reference. You are the one who implied that ALLL black people feel the need to go to the beauty shop as some sort of touchstone with their blackness. I simply replied to this ideal. So who is embarrassed now?

    1. Yvette says:

      You don’t need “evidence” for an opinion. History is not science, and there’s no way to empirically demonstrate what’s required of a people.

      If you’re asserting that Obama takes his queues from white culture, then you’re proving my point. You’re suggesting that he’s anchored in the experiences and outlook of his white mother and grandparents. If true, I understand that. But you can’t make that case, then simultaneously make the case that he is bringing to bear an African American experience.

      And there are many people who are living in black skin who are not bringing to bear their collective, cultural experience. The question I asked was whether Barack Obama was anchored in the African American experience. I don’t believe he is.

      “If and that’s a strong if “Obama has not uttered the word black” could it not be because he is president of THE UNITED STATES of America and not only black America.”

      But he uttered the word Hispanic, gay, and Jewish. The only world that he and his staff avoided was black. A man who is President of the UNITED STATES is responsible for addressing the issues of EVERYONE within it’s boundaries. At this juncture, it appears as if Obama is President of everyone but black people. But seeing as how black folk yourself are accustomed to being ignored and mistreated, I can see why he chose this path.

      ” I live with the history of my baby boomer parents which were born and raised in the South.”

      And now, when the bills are due – the boomers and SS/Medicare are discussed as the next piggy bank to pay down the debt load and support the banks/Wall St, and this is advocated by a BLACK President no less. And this is how he (and YOU) celebrate your parent’s legacy? Sitting in the stands and cheering as Obama undermines their welfare ?

      ” You are the one who implied that ALLL black people feel the need to go to the beauty shop …”

      I implied no such thing. You, obviously, have a reading comprehension problem. The salon / barber shop example spoke to black people’s cultural affinity for one another. Nothing more.

  4. JohnCrow says:

    I remember distinctly the BET special during the campaign where Obama was fielding questions
    from an audience of “real Blacks”. One young lady asked what policies he would implement to correct the acknowledged historical “afflictions” of the African American community in the United
    States. His response was, and I will never forget this, “a rising tide floats all boats”. Now a person who would have been a part of the “black experience” would have known that a significant majority of the Blacks in America had no “boats”; and that the few that did their “boats” were taking on water because of “holes in their hulls” caused by the systemic policies designed to “capsize” their meager efforts to stay “afloat”. But alas, he did not know this established fact, because of course he is not “Black”.

    I just want to add before anyone claim that I am being some kind “Obama is half -white so he not really black”nut job.I will relate the examples of Herman Cain and Clarence Thomas of individuals who would to fall within the same paradigm which I have placed Obama. People who are black, but whose ideological and philosophical outlooks are diametrically opposed that of the shared black experience. Outlooks which unarguably are more inline with the destructive white supremacist principles than any “Black”ideological or philosophical outlook.

  5. Yvette says:

    I’ve often said, and am writing about, how the similarities between Cain and Obama are much more striking than the differences. It is frustrating how one man is derided as Uncle Ruckus while the other is celebrated.

    1. Ladonna says:

      Cain and Thomas?

      Cain is an idiot who thinks a tax plan modeled after a virtual game is viable tax policy. He’s a jackass who thinks it’s cute to pass himself off as a presidential candidate who can’t pronounce the names of foreign countries let alone grasp the complexities of our relationships with them. He’s also a man who denied the most overtly racist elements of the tea party even existed.

      Clarence Thomas accepted a nomination to the highest court in the land knowing it fulfilled a quota (replacing a black supreme court justice with a black conservative regardless of qualification) despite the fact that he was more unqualified than any nominee in modern times. He won senate approval by accusing the white men who were vetting him of trying to deny him due to the color of his skin. However, since he’s taken the bench, apparently white people have ceased and desisted of all racial discrimination.

      Yvette, you may see some deep similarities. But, I must say, I’m compelled to wonder if your disappointment in Obama has caused you to lose your mind where he’s concerned? I’m disappointed in a number of things that Obama has done and not done since taking office. But, Cain and Thomas, really?

      On a general note. I get really uncomfortable with anyone thinking they have the right to judge anyone else’s blackness. Having been on the receiving end of this judgment based on appearance and perhaps other things as well, I know that the only thing that matters is what I think and feel myself. No one else’s “black experience” is more valid or more real than anyone else who considers themselves black. If the president chooses to check the “black” box to describe himself, all I have to say is “welcome.”

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