Senator Barack Obama is black. Deborah Dickerson, the author of THE END OF BLACKNESS (Pantheon books) made a recent appearance on The Colbert Report promoting her new book, and in the process argues Obama is technically not black: a divisive, inaccurate, and harmful claim given the challenges that black people face. I want to know why.
I. If I'm black, Obama sure is:
My brother-in-law is a brilliant defense attorney and professor, he thinks a lot about how people work and how they get themselves in and out of trouble. He hits me with the strangest ideas sometimes, like a year or so ago, he asked me, what do you prefer, black or African American? I said black. (My dad was born in Uganda, my mom's white; most of her side came from Ireland to work in the textile mills a century ago, both are US citizens.) He asked why. I said I didn't know, I just preferred black over African-American. And then I thought about it, and I realized it was an important question: black has no country, it cannot be divided, it can be a state-of-mind, it can be a color, it can be a culture, it can be a class, it can be a race, it can be inclusive. African-American, by contrast is wobbly and specific and hyphenated. I went for black, maybe it's my background in journalism, the Associated Press, for example, generally prefers the term black.
Here's a quick primer on the terms:
As the Civil Rights Movement evolved in the 1960s into the Black Power/Black Pride movement, these older terms lost favor and became associated with the pre-civil-rights situation of Blacks in America. Through this movement, the terms Black and Afro-American both emerged into common usage in the late 1960s. Due to this legacy, by 1980, the term Black had become accepted by a majority of Americans of African descent, and had also became the referential term applied by white Americans in general.
In the late 1980s, Blacks began to abandon the term Afro-American, adopting the autonym African American instead. Some did so out of a desire for an unabbreviated expression of their African heritage that could not be mistaken or derided as an allusion to the afro hairstyle. Others wished to assert their pride in their African origins. The term dated back at least to Black nationalist Malcolm X, who favored African American as more historically and culturally defining over other terms, and used it at an OAAU (Organization of Afro American Unity) meeting in the mid-1960s, saying, "Twenty-two million African Americans - that's what we are - Africans who are in America." However, it did not become widely used at that time. During the 1980s, the most influential proponent of the widespread adoption of the term was Jesse Jackson. Jackson and like-minded persons argued that African American was more in keeping with the United States tradition of "hyphenated Americans", which links people with their ancestors' geographic points of origin, and allows people to assert pride in their ethnic heritage, while maintaining an American national identity. (wikipedia)
Paul Robeson Jr. puts another spin on the question when he writes in his new book, A BLACK WAY OF SEEING (Seven Stories Press): "the 'African-American' label fails to identify directly with the slave culture, since its reference is to pre-slavery times. Middle-class and upper-class blacks prefer this term because it distances them from the slave past." He prefers Black American (with caps).
Ok, for me - I'm black. Keep it simple. la-di-da. I continued on in my quiet life.
Since this summer, despite the dismal state of the world and all its suffering, I started to feel kinda optimistic about the whole thing ... the future. Yes, the future. Yes, I felt this sense that we can change things. I was even thinking hey - black in America! Things are getting better! Look, we got a black guy running for office and people aren't going nuts. I went to my brother's graduation from Northwestern University and saw thousands of white families stand and give Senator Barack Obama an ovation and I thought - holy shit! This IS something.
And then there were little - big - things like the Superbowl's two black coaches, Tony Dungy and Lovey Smith, and the 2007 Oscar nominations of Forest Whitaker (THE LAST OF SCOTLAND), Djimon Hounsou (BLOOD DIAMOND), Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson (both for DREAMGIRLS). We're really making strides, I was thinking recently. And the worst thing of late that Obama's detractors had been saying about him was that he was a smoker. And that's pretty lame, it maybe even made him kind of movie-star dangerous and sexy - I wish you didn't
smoke, but I'm glad that you do! The first lady reportedly smokes, so I was feeling confident, even cautiously optimistic about the state-of-black as it were.
Now let's be real here: I work in New York City, the people who clean the bathrooms at my job look like me, the poor people who live in my gentrifying neighborhood look like me, the homeless people more often than not look like me, the street vendors look like me, the doormen look like me, the bus drivers look like me, the sales clerks at discount stores look like me, the Latin bodega people look like me, the hoods look like me ten years ago. All the second class citizens - we are all very much in common. And yes, Obama, looks like me.
Which is not to say, by the way, that blackness is only about the way you look, it's a state-of-mind (see paragraph 2 again if you don't get my drift.)
II. Deborah Dickerson's world:
So my husband and I were relaxing after dinner the other night, when we get a call from another brother-in-law, telling us to check out what Deborah Dickerson, author of THE END OF BLACKNESS (Pantheon books) is saying on the tube. Her latest book, aims to "both prove and promote the idea that 'blackness', as it's come to be understood, is a concept rapidly losing its ability to predict or manipulate the political and social behavior of black Americans." Ok fine, no real problem with that, Condoleeza Rice clearly fits that bill.
We tuned in with curiosity to The Colbert Report, and our mouths dropped as Stephen Colbert and Ms. Dickerson had the following conversation:
SC: Is Barack Obama black?
DD: No he's not, in the American political context, black means the son of West African, the descendant of West African slaves brought here to labor in the United States. It's not a put-down, it's not to say that he hasn't suffered. It's not to say that he doesn't have a glorious lineage of his own. It's just to say, that he and I, who am descended from West African slaves, brought to America. We are not the same.
SC: Okay, so if he's not black, why doesn't he just run as a white guy? Because we know black people will vote for white people and white people will vote for white people. But we're not sure white people will vote for black people. So it seems like by self identifying as a black man - 'cause he says that he's a black guy - he says, nobody thought a black guy born in Hawaii with a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas could actually win a race. So why doesn't he just
say, you know I'm a white guy, that I mean, then, it's a lock.
DD: Right, well he's not white either. He's an African, African-American. Or he is an American of -
SC: Should we think a new name for what he is?
DD: We do. We need a new name because there's a -
SC: What about nouveau black . . . (laughter) you know, late to the scene blackness.
DD: Well, we could go with black as circumstances allow but -
SC: That's not bad - I like that. Well I gotta say, Ms. Dickerson, I am disappointed in this. Because I was really looking forward to voting for a black guy - I was really hoping to leave the voting booth and say, hey I voted for a black guy.
DD: You can say I voted for an American of African, African-American. An American of African, immigrant stock. And he's also a person who has adopted, uh the role of being black. So he's not my, he's a brother, but he's an adopted brother. (Laughter) and the significance of this -
SC: Uh-huh (laughter)
DD: he's a beloved adopted brother. The significance of this -
SC: Seems like a red-headed step child, you can slap him around a little bit and nobody's gonna care.
DD: But we love him just the same.
SC: Okay alright but shouldn't black people jump on the Obama wagon? 'Cause if he doesn't have the burden of uh uh this past - of being the descendant of African slaves, he doesn't feel the black experience, can't he just sort of carry the torch and ya'll just piggy back on him?
DD: Well I think that's what's going to happen, I think Barack Obama is a wonderful person, we're proud of him, uh but, and this is not a critique of him, what this is a critique of white self-congratulation, of saying we're embracing a black person when we're not really, it's a way of - if he were a sub-Saharan African -
DD: (crosstalk) he would not get this love.
SC: Listen, if you hadn't told me, he wasn't black I would have thought that I was supporting a black person. And then, I would have been supporting all black people.
SC: But now, I won't because he's not.
DD: Right, well then that would make you a racist.
SC: Mmm, if I were white. (Laughter) But I don't see race, okay because I've moved beyond that, I've developed beyond that. I'm so not a racist. I don't see race. People tell me I'm white and I believe them because I think that Barack Obama is black. (Laughter)
DD: He's an African, African-American.
SC: So it sounds to me like you are judging blackness not on the color of someone's skin but on the content of their character, which I think realized Dr. King's dream in a very special way. (Laughter)
DD: I think you mean not so much special as perverted. (Laughter) But, um, I think that, uh. You've got me so confused here. It's not so much the content of our character it's the content of our history and our culture and what we're doing by calling him black is obliterating the culture of his Kenyan father.
SC: Well, wouldn't this be, would this make it more acceptable to the African-American community if he shared some of the experience, the black American experience, and he wasn't the descendant of slaves, but what if for a brief period of time he were enslaved? (Laughter) And
then uh, but nothing racist, he could be like Jesse Jackson's slave or Al Sharpton's slave? (Laughter) And then they could say like, you know, you're free now - and you know no foul, no harm, and then he has all the street cred he needs? (Laughter)
DD: (Pause laughter ) . . . I think you may have me there.
There is laughter throughout this interview and it seems that Colbert and the audience are getting a good laugh at the expense of Ms. Dickerson.
Perhaps it should be said second that Dickerson skims over the facts - any standard reference will tell you that, "about three-quarters of the slaves came from West Africa and the remaining quarter came from the (south-central) Angola-Congo region." For someone arguing so vigorously for precision, she is more at the service of her agenda than accuracy.
And her theory or her agenda isn't very elegant. Colbert is just smart enough to get Dickerson turned around, and all she can do is admit, "you've got me so confused". Anyone in mathematics or science will tell you that the highest praise is an elegant answer, Dickerson, when she's explaining her ideas, has nothing elegant about it. The audience knows BS when they hear it - what a clunky theory - and they all laugh as she flounders trying to explain how Senator Barack Obama is not - I repeat not - an African-American but is in fact an African, African-American.
III. Why all the drama Ms. Dickerson?
Dickerson's website raves that her work "has been featured in Best American Essays" and that she "has won the New York Association of Black Journalists' first-place award for personal commentary. Her first book, AN AMERICAN STORY, received rave reviews from the New York Times, Washington Post, and more! " Credentials established, her bio says she got her B.A. in Government & Politics from the University of Maryland and worked in the military as an Intelligence Officer. Later she earned her masters in International Relations and even worked on President Clinton's first election campaign, "and learned that I had no stomach for elective politics."
What I find interesting is why an apparently educated person would work against her interests as a black woman. (And yes, black people have common interests, they are human interests - to have the opportunities, chances and access of the American Dream.) Why would she attack Obama in this way? I wondered. Could it be that she has no idea the damage she might do - creating a spiritual rift among blacks - could she be willing to do this simply in the service of her own ambition? If so, the damage she is willing to inflict is staggering, especially since the man at the center of this conversation is a black man and a man who white people are actually taking seriously. So seriously, in fact, that with the Obama announcement this weekend, Australian Prime Minister John Howard launched this premature ejaculation:
"If I were running al-Qaeda in Iraq, I would put a circle around March 2008 and be praying as many times as possible for a victory, not only for Obama but also for the Democrats."
(Australia's Nine Network)
Saturday Night Live this weekend took a more humorous turn on this topic, with Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton: both men gave Obama advice on how to appeal to whites and not be too black. The skit highlighted just how hard it is for black men to be taken seriously in politics.
In her quest to be specific, she's lost the big picture. What she has forgotten is that marginalized groups are stronger together and weaker divided. Those in power will do their damnedest to divide the weak. We don't need to help them do it. Think big picture lady. John Howard doesn't need you assistance!
For me, the most telling nugget is when she argues the following, "And he's also a person who has adopted, uh the role of being black. So he's not my, he's a brother, but he's an adopted brother." Firstly, she has a creepy way of insinuating that Obama is "acting" and by his "taking a role", she intimates that there is something illegitimate or put-on by his actions. This is a very aggressive assertion, especially when talking about a politician, who trades on his credibility, on his being trusted and "real", the real deal, I know where he stands: We elect people for the most ephemeral reasons and she's futzing with the ether. And then she asserts, "he's not my... brother" Why not? Why would someone not be your full brother? Why would you not claim full kinship with someone else? Why the attenuated status? I'd say someone were my sister if she were white with blond hair and green eyes, if I truly felt we had a bond. To say someone is your sister or brother is to say that you are family, that you are a friend you'd go to bat for. Surely, we all have people in our lives who are not exactly the same as us. Dickerson is calling for a break. And she's absolutely out of her mind.
But then, there are always those, who recognizing their weakened position, find the best way to get close to power is to lose sight of their own interests, to forget who they are, to conflate their interests with the powerful, which reminds me of a joke I heard recently:
Two men walk into a bar. They take a seat and order two drinks.
The barman says: we don't serve niggers here.
The black guy gets up and leaves. The man next to him says, I'm Puerto Rican.
The man behind the bar says, I didn't ask you what kind of nigger you are, I said we don't serve niggers here.
I think we all laugh hardest at these folks, who lose sight of where they are. And I'm really sorry it is a black woman who's working away, as if with a jackhammer, at old wounds.
Dickerson's whole message seems all the more shocking given the challenges ahead. There are many people in the world who deserve a spot on a show like The Colbert Report and by that I mean a more prominent place in the national media discussion.
I really shouldn't speak about black people collectively (anymore than I already have) but what the hell: We blacks in America need to wake up to the needs of other people of color beyond and inside our borders and also to the tremendous resources we have in our hearts and in our own relative material wealth (as compared to those living elsewhere). My aunt and my cousins in Kampala, Uganda easily sleep eight in a room, sharing a bunk bed, and they get malaria on and off throughout the year because they don't always have money for the medicine. Those who have serious health problems usually die: My cousin Kakooza died of a seizure a couple years ago, maybe he would have lived had he gotten better care in the US. These aren't even the worst stories, but this is what is happening and American blacks need to become acquainted with the totality of what is happening to us. It's great what Oprah's doing, maybe more celebrities will follow suit. And maybe, just maybe, regular folks, will start seeing that there is a connection and that highlighting differences and specificities have their place, but to what end? We can change our destiny: We don't have to be defined solely by the circumstances of our victimization, wherever it may have happened. Slavery and colonialism were victimization, but victimization is not culture, ethnicity or class. For example, say I was abused as a kid, that's part of me, but that's not all of who I am. I am not, Logan-abused person. I am Logan writer, wife, lousy singer, friend of Lucy and Pearl, etc. etc.
Even if I were to indulge Ms. Dickerson's neurosis about defining "blackness", I think it would soon become clear that in regards to blackness - what is more important is what unifies us, not what divides.
That's a healing lesson that Obama can share with this entire country. This is a message this country needs and perhaps is part of his widespread appeal; people want something better for this country.
Words have weight, and what we call ourselves matters. Ms. Dickerson, it seems, would argue for a narrow, specific and divided view of what black culture is. But it's more complicated and juicy than that.