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.