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The Julia Moment – Obama’s Speech on Race

The easiest place to start is at the tears. And for me it was the mention of the white grandmother “who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world.”

I remember first really connecting to my black American self reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X while traveling in Europe. I was in from the beginning, along with the rage, understanding Brother Malcolm’s hatred of the “white rapist blood” within him even though the preponderance of “white” blood in me came from histories of love and directly from a courageous woman who moved across a continent and an ocean to marry a man who feared the social repercussions of his choice. And though Malcolm eventually re-evaluates his characterizations of the “blue-eyed devils,” embracing a multi-hued community of sincerity–a journey I joined in my reading–I was momentarily just as much with him when he proclaimed that the only thing he liked integrated was his coffee. I understood the history. Parts of my life connected viscerally to his narrative through my own experience and the stories both my father and mother told me. I was caught up in his intelligence and charisma. Ultimately I was inspired by his capacity for change and love.

My father’s generation have told me about the moment they saw Diahann Carroll on TV in her show Julia. She was simply a beautiful black woman, sans caricature, neither Madonna, nor whore. A woman.

When we talk of race in this country, particularly in this era, it is generally of tolerance, of how close we are or not to equality, of self-identity, or in platitudinous phrases and descriptions of colorblindness (“Love See No Color” [sic…and gag!]), of a post-racial society. We speak “people of color”–whose opposite, I guess, would be “people absent color(?).”

And I’ve heard all the justifications for black rage and white anger.

But in political dialogue I’ve never heard a self-identified black man, speak of the absolute love he receives from his white family, his complete connection to them, even as the nearly inevitable racial experiences create moments of tension within that primary relationship. This was my Julia Moment.

Most of my “friends of color” have had our moments when we said we’d never date a white person again. And I’ve been asked if that sentiment offends me, seeing that I must have some connection to my whiteness. How could a sentiment that I’ve adopted myself for a period “offend” me? During my time of self-segregation I discovered that cultural ideas were as jumbled and problematic in my limited community as they were in the larger community to which I belong by blood and experience.

That’s the complicated beauty of Obama’s speech from Tuesday morning. I cannot disown, we cannot disown the white, the black, the brown, the Asian, the native people of this land nor can we deny the legacies of what has happened in the past and what is happening now that creates division in our society. The “whole” experience, the identity beyond the hyphen that adds divisive distinction preceding the word American, is a world where we can hold the profound and profane in a single family.

I was my maternal grandmother’s first grandchild. She wasn’t happy with the idea that her daughter was marrying a black man. A year after they were, my grandmother and I started a love affair that would continue into my 30s. We’d hold hands at our favorite bench, looking out at the lighthouse, facing east towards old England, from where our ancestors came in the 17th Century. I usually sat to her left, so when I looked towards her, in the distance southeast was the land where some of my family was bought and brought to this country. Behind us was entire land that used to belong to a brown people and the coast where I was raised in the sunshine. Even further west is the island of Oahu where Barack Obama and I were born. And beyond that is the Philippines where my step mother was born and raised.

This isn’t a platitude or a list, this is our family. I don’t love everything that happens within it, we’re a complicated community, but the bond and the love is irrefutable.

(c) Jason Luckett, March 19, 2008

Perspective and Collective Assumptions

Prompted by Paul Krugman’s Op-Ed piece and blog today claiming venom from Barck Obama’s supporters with regard to Hillary Clinton’s campaign and alledged race baiting–which Krugman attributes actually to the media–I’ve just watched the YouTube video of the question and answer that started this conversation about MLK and LBJ. It is the reporter who picked the segment mentioning King, which was one of several illustrations of “hope” in Obama’s stump speeches, to quote back to Senator Clinton. I see no racist intent in her response, nor do I see it as a deviation of her “experience matters” campaign stance. And strategically, one never wants to add complexity to an argument that would cede ground to one’s opponent. But her response does echo a patronizing history of majority privilege. It does seem to reinforce the division of labor, that the marginalized should continue to campaign for their goals outside the system and that change is only achieved when an insider, a beneficiary of long established hierarchies decides to ratify the outsiders’ ambition. Couple that with former President Clinton’s mention of Jesse Jackson’s wins in South Carolina, excluding mentions of his own win or John Edwards win or Al Sharpton’s loss and you get a picture of Black leaders as marginal outsiders at the very least.

Is that playing the race card intentionally or does it speak to a deeper status quo mindset that views Blacks as inspirational figures but not worthy of consideration for administrative leadership? I don’t believe that Hillary isn’t sincerely inspired when she realizes that there is an African-American man next to a European-American woman on the stage next to her running to lead the nation. But I do believe that her drive for the office may blind her to the some of the slights people who are not European-American feel everyday. And I’m clearly aware that in my editing of this comment, I went back to insert the word “man” after “African-American” and I inserted “European-American” before the word “woman.” Is it a given that a person running for President is a man? And is it a given that a woman running for President is white? Changing our collective assumptions about people in this world should be a vital project for the “Leader of the Free World.” It should result in strengthening our international image as well as creating a climate for greater security for us domestically. I think all should avoid using “Missus Clinton” in reference to Clinton as much as all should avoid efforts to attach marginalized Black leaders to Obama, as Bill Clinton has done. Overall I believe that Senator Obama is better positioned to change collective assumptions. However inspirational is her potential to break the glass ceiling, Senator Clinton and her team seem too locked into past divisions of patronage based on race, class and other privilege to offer as effective leadership to a diverse nation and world. If you are baited, it’s your responsibility as a leader neither to bite, nor deepen the divide by short sighted or misleading comments. Obama will be tested and baited by the media as the Democratic candidate for President. It is unknown how he will respond to the “Clinton Rules.” But we do know that in her self-touted vetting process, Senator Clinton and President Clinton have both failed.

Are they race-baiting intentionally? Probably not initially. Are they trying to capitalize on racial politics? You decide. (Frank Rich thinks so.)

¡Sí, Se Puede!

A couple days ago I added the subtitle: “Mulatto Moments in ‘Post-Racial’ America.” Of course I hope that everyone here would recognize the jest: how could you really have “mulatto moments” if there weren’t discoveries that weren’t based in truly segregated realities? But I’m consistently surprised. Years ago I used in a song: ‘The colorblind man sees better than the rest / I’m trying to believe it’s true.’ I’m convinced now, as I pretty much was then, was that the operative part of that compound is blind. (There’s a good Op-Ed by Uzodinma Iweala that appeared in the L.A. Times on Jan. 23 that breaks down the idea of “Post Racial” America.) And who really wants to be blind? I’m sure there were folks with me at the Democratic Debate in Hollywood on Thursday that saw “a man” staring down from all those posters for Barack Obama. I saw a man, too. But I saw a biracial man, who is called Black, or African-American, by himself and others, who kissed his white grandparents, like I kissed mine. And because I know a little of his story, I know that he’s spent some time here and there, in different nations, where different religions were dominant. And I was a little scared thinking about the joy I feel seeing old pictures of similarly hued Malcolm X (probably lighter than the biracial Obama, and definitely lighter than Denzel Washington), and Malcolm’s end. I wasn’t born then, Barack was 3, and things have changed. Now there’s real hope that a man that looks like that will lead this country…a country that was heavily invested in not giving power to anyone even the shade of a paper bag when he was born. (Follow the link and search around, a paper bag test was really the result of internalized racism, but you get the picture. When was Thurgood Marshall appointed to the Supreme Court? And what shade was he? The later’s answer is interestingly the day after Loving v. Virginia struck down all Anti-Miscegenation laws in the country, June 13, 1967.)

I’m glad I know this history and can see it.

I don’t need to know the concepts behind a great piece of music. I don’t need to know the lyrics. But I’m excited by that knowledge, intrigued by the confluence and how that contributes to the power of the work. And I’m annoyed by those who dismiss it, dismiss the traditions of the music. This isn’t because I’m getting old, the first song I ever wrote was influenced by Woody Guthrie’s use of traditional source material. I was 9.

So I’m equally annoyed by those who are ignorant of the history of color prejudice, who wistfully long for a period when it will not matter in the near future or, even more egregiously, claim that time is now.

Tonight I’m just getting in from a Black/Brown dialogue by way of a Poetry Choir Performance in Highland Park. Really, most of the crowd, however identified, was ironically the shade of a brown paper bag, give or take. Maybe this is post racial, where we’re all the same shade but the difference is the cultural traditions. But the shade (the cover that you can’t judge!) leads to a story of the alchemy. And part of that alchemy includes the history of prejudice and how it has impacted all of our lives, privileged and not.

But beyond that, (¡Sí, Se Puede!), history is fun and illuminating. I’m at the debates Thursday, and the blue English signs for Obama are all out. So I get the red one, which is in Spanish. I’m not bilingual. And I’m the kid who took French in my upper-middle class suburb. But I dug “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido” better than “The People United will never be defeated” when we demonstrated against Aparthied back in the 80s. And I heard “¡Sí, Se Puede!” then. I heard it in the streets a couple years ago. And I’m completely thrilled. There are probably some cynics that will say it’s a co-opting akin to AeroMexico’s. But to me it’s an embrace, an embrace of the Farm Workers’ movement, et. al. I feel like only a true believer with the audacity of hope could think that he could use a phrase so identified with leftist movements to win a mainstream election while signaling his inclusion of people who have been historically shut out. And talk about inclusion, Obama even has a LGBT link on his page! (I wonder what Pat “see sah perda” Buchanan would say about that!). I’m just so excited that my generation, a generation with leaders that are post modern, recognizing the real presence of difference, of cultural circumstance, without bowing to the hierarchies of the past, has the chance to lead. That is the future, not some colorblind, bland, “we’re all the same” thing.

Yes we can embrace all these differences and thrive. Remember when multiculturalism was “hot?” Well now it just “is.” And we need someone who understands that intuitively, dare I say natively. We don’t need someone who’ll cynically use codified race baiting on the campaign trail, whether intentional or not, and I know it was Bill, not Hillary. (Remember when Bill Clinton discussed what the meaning of the word “is” is? I embrace ambiguity, but there’s a little cynical manipulation going on there. And I liked Clinton well enough. But both Clinton and George Wallace have won the South Carolina Primary along with John Edwards, Jesse Jackson and proto neo-con Henry M. Jackson.)

I said originally that this wasn’t going to be a blog just about Obama. And it isn’t, but this movement is really inspiring me.

And so it begins…

The beginning of this pet project, is to what I refer.

After the 2004 Democratic Convention Speech, I was blown away thinking that this was the America I know. This brown guy with a white mother and black father, born in Honolulu talking about unity. That’s always been my trip, same birthplace, similar circumstances, (though my father was from Mississippi and mother from Maine…which some might think is as radical a divide as Kenya and Kansas) our parents at the U of H though a few years later than Obama’s. But this isn’t about my similarities with a man whom I admire in any way other than a starting point.

Of course I always embraced my blackness and whiteness, Southern and Yankee background (however cloaked it was during my time of only claiming “Indian” in junior high school). And I believed it gave me a great opportunity of intimate access to Black and White America which felt very real and fairly exclusive to me in my 70’s and 80’s childhood. The Civil Rights Movement was “over” by then and I have no direct memory of King’s assasination or Bobby Kennedy, let alone real segregation. But I saw my Los Angeles family friends and my Irvine friends and received very different information from each.* So I took music and tried to tell stories in which people who believed they were like me could hear stories of people whom they deemed “other” while claiming my connection to both. It’s a struggle. But everything is a struggle when it comes to youth and identity. And it continues today with national, ethnic, sexual, and religious identities.

So my sister and I came up with this idea of a project where we would photograph people of mixed heritage and let that speak under the term ObamaNation to what we’re becoming as a culture. It’s a culture where identity is fluid, though where I feel respect should be paid to the legacies we represent. So, yes, it’s easy to say we’re all mixed, yet I don’t want to hear a white looking person using the N-word without the recognition of the struggle his Octaroon great-grandfather had with that word and what it represented. And I won’t use familiar epithets for a host of people whom may not be of my varied background, nor will you hear many disparaging mentions of our own pet names from me (our own being the “biracial” black, white with a little Native American and a Filipino step family group). Also, I appreciate the spoken resemblance to the “Abomination” that was claimed in the not so distant past about our existence as human beings.

But Sis and I aren’t photographers. We let it go. But in light of the historic win tonight for Barack Obama, I’d launch this conversation. I want to hear the stories of people who feel they are truly bi/multi-racial or bi/multi-cultural. What do those terms mean? I have no criteria. But I want to hear and create a spot where that conversation can begin in a truly inclusive spot. I’ve seen places where the biracial identity seems self-fetishized (which frankly irritates me as much as hearing from “mono-racials” how “mixed babies are always the prettiest!”). I don’t come from that point of view. I just want to know your experience and share a little of mine from time to time.

I’m not set up in a Huffington Post style at this point, so just use the blogger commenting system and if you’d like to create an article, just mention that in the comment and I’ll stick it up as an entry attributed to you. Or I’ll link to your blog. Let’s see what we can do. And if we get a roll going, maybe I’ll investigate some group blogging application and we can all contribute equally from different locations.

——–

But how do you feel about Barack Obama’s victory tonight? I know I have the good kind of chills mainly because of the what I said above. I love that someone like me, who has had such subtle and more direct intimate encounters with so many cultures is nearer to being able to have the greatest platform in the political world from which to bridge divides. I know when I ran for student office at UCLA no one ran against me because all that had an interest in what my office provided believed I represented their interests. And anyone who may have wanted the position withdrew because they knew that fact made me unbeatable. I was nineteen and that experience of holding the office was why I never continued in politics, but I was able to set into motion some real cooperation and bring the “Cultural Affairs Commission” a little closer to the level of influence of the more commercially oriented Campus Events Commission. I knew songs were my mission after that. But Barack Obama, stuck with politics. He has been able to take the lessons that I didn’t want to ever be close to relearning again and turned them into ideas and orations that unite and educate a nation. I often feel I’ve accomplished in a room of multi-hued faces singing my songs of unity. But his stage is greater, in a tougher arena and his experience is a quarter century long. I have no doubt that he’ll be able to take those subtle experiences that us cultural shape-shifters have and turn elements of them into actionable policy that will bring the nation closer together and improve our global image.

Let’s talk.

Jason

*As recently as 2000 I learned that white people’s hair smelled like dogs when wet and wondered where I stood on the continuum from “good hair” to animal fur. Granted these were young teenagers, not peers, sharing this in a camp setting in a “blacks only” group to which I was a counsellor. The group’s facilitaor told me that came up every year for the stereotype list. So perhaps I shouldn’t event hint at a pass and should be more shocked that stereotypes, or at least such cultural isolation exists in the 2000s. We need a (real) uniter….

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