Black Like Me
Those reading this may not be surprised to learn that I wrote the bulk of this piece before Iowa and before Hillary and Bill’s backfired attempts to win over more Black people. The tide has shifted dramatically. Obama is now easily winning over 3 quarters of the Black vote in primary after primary, he now has the endorsement of rap stars whose “Black” credentials have never been questioned, and t-shirts with his face can be bought along Crenshaw Blvd along with bean pies, incense, and copies of The Final Call. Yet, I still feel ill at ease. Is this truly a willingness to embrace Obama and his particular Blackness? Or is it just a rejection of Hillary and a desire to get on the bandwagon now that backing him seems popular among Black people. Are we (if I am now allowed to use that pronoun) just being sheep or was all the dissension over Obama’s Blackness really covering a now-relinquished fear that a Black man could ever be elected president of the United States?
Barack Obama is Black like me, almost exactly in fact. Like Obama, I was born to a Mid-Western white mother and a Black East African father. Like Obama’s, my father was charming and gregarious, troubled and complex, a womanizer and an eventual victim of his own pride. Like his mother, mine was both naïve and worldly, loyal and steadfast. Born of a unique racial and ethnic mix, Barack share a unique heritage now at the center of questions about his ability to be a leader for Black Americans.
When Barack first thrust into the national spotlight at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, I felt something I’d never expected to transpire in my lifetime – an identification with a national figure who was Black like me. A shared experience with someone who now actually has a shot at becoming president of the United States of America.
I didn’t join Obama’s fan club, immediately donate money, or campaign, but I bought his first book and consumed it with the slow pleasure of one enjoying a rich, multi-course meal. Soon, I found myself reading any news or magazine article on the Senator that crossed my path, and placed a gorgeous picture of him on my computer desktop. In the black and white close up, he sits with headphones on, smiling and fully self-possessed, as he answers the questions of a local radio host. The look of self-possession was perhaps what motivated me to post the picture. I know how hard it is to come by, in a society that prefers dichotomies and simple opposites, for people with our set of contradictory backgrounds and multilayered complexities.
When the Chicago senator later announced his presidential candidacy, I didn’t even know that he would get my vote, but knew that I liked the man, the person. I know that I am proud to see a man with his self-assuredness, intelligence, and stated mission (to bring all of us into the full realization of this country’s state mission) – who is Black like me on a national stage. Unlike the “tragic mulatto” or sexy biracial vixen that are perhaps America’s most indelible images of their biracial citizens, Barack is unconfused and long over trying to be anyone but himself. He also embraces an African-American identity rather than standing apart and pushing forward a multiracial agenda that, prioritizes individual identity rights over a more fundamental and basic struggle for justice long overdue America’s “brownest” citizens.
What I did not fully expect in my quiet joy over Barack’s presidential run is that suddenly the Black authenticity of someone who is Black like me would be the subject of so much dialogue and debate in the mainstream media and Black community. Major commentaries, questioning his Blackness were written by Black luminaries such as Al Sharpton, Stanley Crouch, and . . . ., editorial cartoons and comedians joked about his shaky claim to a Black experience, and seemingly endless polls reminded us that Barack was challenged in beating out his major opponent – a white woman whose support from Blacks stems largely from a love for her white husband – despite the fact that his policies included things like ending welfare as we know it and putting into place trade legislation that helped to further deteriorate the manufacturing core that helped birth the Black middle class (not to mention policies that ravaged the economies of some Black-led democratic nations in the West Indies.)
When it first occurred to me to write this piece, I was weathering these discussions quite easily and congratulating myself for having come to a place where I was secure enough in my own identity, in my own place within Black communities and the multilayered African American experience to feel unfazed. I laughed along with the Daily Show’s “senior Black correspondent” who joked that “African Americans liked African food, African clothes, African music, but African people – not so much” and was not pleased, but not bothered, when I heard about Crouch’s piece, “Not Black Like Me” New York Daily News piece (11/2/06).
I could sympathize with those wanting to point out that a victory for Barack was not the same as one for someone whose ancestry and personal history fit into the predominant African-American story — that of involuntary migrants for whom slavery remains an indelible memory (or humiliating insult). I could understand why political pundits and commentators would believe that white America might be more comfortable with a Black man whose culture, language, women, and religion their own ancestors did not take direct role in robbing, raping, distorting, and denigrating. They were right, I knew, despite my disappointment in the media’s constant attention to this show of Black disunity.
But since that early barrage of articles and commentaries, there have been some chips in my own armor, leaving me angry and disappointed and less sure about how I (or should I) write about this. The lowest moment came when I wished Barack would win and then issue an executive order telling Black America to go screw itself. I was that frustrated by the apparent willingness of African Americans to turn their back on him. Perhaps, I should explain. In this country, few of us can walk into a room without one’s race being the first thing observed about them. Growing up one the white side of Dayton, Ohio, this was acutely true for me. My grade school was all white save myself, my sister, two older African Americans, and a group of siblings from a Vietnamese “boat” family. The neighborhood we lived in, our church, and vast majority of my organized activities through 8th grade were even less integrated. Overt acts of racism — hearing racist jokes, having racist epithets hurled at me, and seeing racist graffiti on playgrounds and bathroom stalls were regular occurrences for me.
My parent’s took us to a range of multi-cultural events and did their best to help us to understand and deal with these experiences. They revered the civil rights movement and used Dr. King’s philosophy as the model for how my sister and I should respond. They had a small group of African and African-American friends whose families we sometimes shared Sunday afternoons and dinners with, but there was no African community in Dayton to be a part of so to speak, nor were my parents really a part of the city’s African-American community. In this context, I drew my heroes, my strength, my willingness to forgive, and even my sense of self from what I knew about the Black civil rights pioneers who I learned about from Mom, Dad, our Catholic school’s slim Black history curriculum, and the local library.
To my knowledge, there were no slaves or slaveholders in our family’s background, but I still felt the slave’s pain and rejoiced in his emancipation. And, I could draw a straight line between the racial epithets, threats, and physical violence thrown at civil rights workers and my own much less intense day-to-day experiences. Neither the history of my Father’s people nor that of my mother’s German-Irish ancestors held the same relevance to me or provided the same sustenance. Hence, it was and is to this history I wanted to add my own story line and to the African-American people I determined my alliance. My personal life and my work, which is dedicated to understanding and reducing Black/White disparities in health outcomes, reflect this and despite my differences, I believe that African Americans rejoice and share in my successes.
Perhaps my genetic draw has made this easier. Like Barack, people rarely mistake me for another race and or even guess that one of my parents was white (unless they know that the other was African). Hence, the outward expressions of white racism I heard were largely uncomplicated by the “mulatto factor” and African Americans tended to see me as “one of them” before noticing the ways in which I was different. Yes, my teen and college days included my being questioned and sometimes left out for not being “Black enough,” but my larger experience has been that the African American community’s embrace is wide enough to include me and many others whose personal histories stray from its dominant narrative.
This is no doubt a legacy of our country’s “one-drop rule” but, beyond that, reflects a survival strategy, birthed perhaps on slave ships and auction blocks, when members of rival tribes chose to come to one another’s assistance rather than to watch another perish without offering aid. It extended to the offspring of involuntary unions between white plantation owners and black female slaves and to many civil rights heroes who were also not 100% African American. For example, the activist Marcus Garvey was Jamaican; the scholar, W.E.B. DuBois, was African, French and Dutch; the famous physician, Charles R. Drew, was African American and White; and the politician and activists, Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. and Jr., were African American, Cherokee, and White. The “Barack reaction,” however, has lead me to question just how many Black people really know this and to wonder whether or not African American communities really desire my allegiance, my skills and my commitment.
Yes, I know that things are different now, for a host of reasons too complicated to recount here, but I have grown troubled by the now-resurgent focus on whether or not Barack is Black enough. Troubled by who wins and what is ultimately lost in the process. Troubled by why the need to examine the “authentic Blackness” of some Black folks rarely extends to those with certain characteristics — such as being “true to the streets” or able to invoke the race card at the right moment (a la Clarence Thomas) — as if these were community-building, Afrocentric characteristics in and of themselves. Perhaps, Malcolm X’s contrasting of the “field” and “house” Negro is branded in the African American mind, and it will never trust those Black people whose success stems from “houses” to which most African Americans have been so long denied. Perhaps, however, it has forgotten that some “house Negroes” put glass and urine in the “Master’s” food and some “field Negroes ” literally sold out their brethren who attempted escape or revolt. More importantly, it must remember that achieving a brighter future requires not only a vision long enough to include the past but one wide enough to move beyond it.
Is it wrong to question where Barack’s allegiances lie and whether he is truly committed to the struggle of African American people? No. But, if we take this course, let us not start and stop the process with people like Barack. Let us begin with ourselves and then extend it to each and every person who asks for our money, our vote, our support, or our admiration — regardless of whether or not all of their ancestors were African american. And, PLEASE let this be a family discussion. Am I the only one embarrassed by the fact that for over two years now the media has been able to put forth little else about the African American impression of Obama than its anxiety over whether he is “Black enough” — making us appear superficial, divided, and (frankly) afraid? Yes, we can rarely expect a nuanced and complete portrayal of African Americans from the mainstream media but Black commentators, writers and others have provided plenty of fuel for this particular fire. My fear is that more has been burned in the process. What other people who are “Black like me” now find themselves feeling estranged, alienated, and cut loose from sources of strength, pride, and community – less willing to join in the collective work needed to build a brighter future for all African Americans? How many African American children have bought into the idea that Barack’s success can never be their own?