The hullabaloo about Obama’s racial identity reminds me of the day a few years back when a Spanish friend called me with a strange and urgent question: “Do you understand black people?”
As it turned out, her question was far less profound than it appeared at first. First, by "black people" she meant black Americans. She was translating documentaries about American music for a Spanish film festival. A few of the films were about old-time Delta blues. Others featured the origins of hip-hop in Brooklyn, NY in the 1970s. She couldn’t make heads or tails of what she was hearing, despite her excellent English.
So if I ever write that rarest of documents – the 100% honest resume – Ebonics-to-English translator will have pride of place, just above salmon gutter (job experience Hillary Clinton claims as well) and fashion model masseur.
But back to racial identity. I later learned that I wasn’t the first person my friend had turned to for help. Before me, she’d called a British guy she knew. Despite being black, he couldn’t make out what was being said, either. Turns out, a cloud-white Irish-American from Pennsylvania had a better ear for Brooklyn slang and bayou drawl than a black guy from Brixton, England.
Just goes to show you.
I was reminded of this by talk of Obama’s blackness (Black enough? Too black?) and the so-called “white vote.” Isn’t this a clear example of linguistic simplicity leading to conceptual confusion? Obama is as black as a zebra – or less so. His white mother and even whiter grandparents raised him in pretty white areas (Hawaii, Kansas), and he attended overwhelmingly white schools and had mainly white friends. So what, other than his absent father, was “black” about his experience? I haven’t read his books yet, but I’d bet that the main thing that made him feel “black” – if such a feeling can be said to exist – was the dark reflection of himself he saw in the eyes of many whites.
A friend of ours was born in Republic of the Congo and raised in France. Visually, she’s far "blacker" than Obama, Martin Luther King, or Malcolm X, but she doesn’t consider herself to be “black” at all, in the sense that Americans understand the term. Though she knows many people see her as black, she considers herself to be French. She’s got no personal connection to the black American experience. Her ancestors were never sold as slaves in the West Indies.
But mine might have been. In the 17th century, about 80,000 Irish women and children were sold in the same slave markets that processed the millions of Africans brought across the Atlantic in chains. According to a fantastic essay by Michael Ventura (Hear That Long Snake Moan), as late as 1800, there were blacks in Jamaica who spoke Gaelic. Listen to Bob Marley speak (whose father was white, by the way), and you’ll hear echoes of an Irish brogue. So don't call me white -- I'm only as white as my French/Congolese friend is black.
These thoughts lead to a possible answer for those who ask why Obama didn’t tell his Reverend Wright to cool it with his passionate denunciations of mainstream “white” American culture. Maybe, like our French/Congolese friend, Obama simply had the decency and intelligence to recognize that it really wasn’t any of his business. His ancestors hadn’t toiled in Mississippi cotton fields. Who is he to tell an African-American leader what to say or not to say to other African-Americans about the black struggle in the United States?
What makes Obama an inspirational figure for us is not that he could be the first “black” president, but that Obama could be the first president to render the question of racial identity too damned confusing to bother with. And this would be the truest reflection of American life. Look in the mirror and the face you see is white, black, or some shade of brown, peach or pink. But what if you could see your mind or personality in that mirror? What tones would you see then? Is there a white American alive who’s head isn’t filled with Robert Johnson, James Brown, Miles Davis and/or Snoop Dogg? Suburban white kids in Connecticut walk around in baggy pants hanging off their asses because belts aren’t issued to the mainly black inmates of overflowing America's prisons, but most of these kids have no idea where the fashion came from; they just think it’s cool. Similarly, even the most militant black Americans are steeped in white culture every time they turn on their TV set, go to school, or get a job.
Comedian Dave Chapelle’s got a fantastic sketch where he plays a blind white supremacist who doesn’t know he’s actually black (Clayton Bixby). I think Chapelle's point is that you’ve gotta be blind to be a racist, cause no matter how white you think you are, a big part of you is black – and vice-versa.
Update: Brown Man ATL has just posted his thoughts on this question which, although he's black and I'm white, are very similar -- thereby making both our points! Seems like we worked it out beforehand, but scout's honor, it just happened that way. Check his post out here.
Update #2: A friend just pointed me to this article, which examines the issue of black identity in contemporary American culture. It's quite good.