THE BLOG
02/19/2007 09:40 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama: Cultural Mulatto

I bit my tongue for as long as I could, reading essay after essay about Obama and his "blackness" that were about as insightful as if they'd been written in the era of Flip Wilson. Geez! Doesn't anybody watch the Disney Channel these days? The complexion of America has changed in the last thirty years. Our antebellum notions of race like the "one-drop rule" (one drop of black and you're black) no longer make any sense in this new millennium.

The same, tired antebellum thinking was aimed at Colin Powell when he was being touted as a presidential contender. Although he was born in Harlem, U.S.A., some whites and blacks insisted that he was really a closeted Jamaican because of his Jamaican parents.

The fact that the discourse has not progressed one black-eyed-pea in a generation makes me want to dive headfirst from the top of the nearest basketball rim.

I wrote an article entitled "The New Black Aesthetic" about the ever-expanding and fluid definitions of blackness and black art back in 1989. I'm surprised to say that the article is still taught in universities and cited in academic papers and will be the focus of an upcoming symposium at Harvard in March. In the essay, written way back when Reagan roamed the earth, I coined the term "cultural mulatto," to describe people like myself who, because of how we were raised, can easily navigate both the white world and the black. You can read it HERE in its entirety but the highlights that most apply to Obama and the simple-minded misconceptions about him spouted by black pundits and white are as follows:

"I had somebody say once my black was way too black,
And someone answer she's not black enough for me."

-- Joan Armatrading, "How Cruel," title track A&M Records

Just as a genetic mulatto is a black person of mixed parents who often can get along fine with his white grandparents, a cultural mulatto, educated by a multi-racial mix of cultures, can also navigate easily in the white world. And it is by and large this rapidly growing group of cultural mulattoes that fuels the NBA. We no longer need to deny or suppress any part of our complicated and sometimes contradictory cultural baggage to please either white people or black. The culturally mulatto Cosby girls are equally as black as a black teenage welfare mother.

Today's cultural mulattoes echo those "tragic mulattoes" critic Sterling Brown wrote about in the Thirties only when they too forget they are wholly black. Most self-deluding cultural mulattoes desperately fantasize themselves the children of William F. Buckley. However a minority affect instead a "superblackness" and try to dream themselves back to the ghetto. Either way they are letting other people define their identity. Today, there are enough young blacks torn between the two worlds that we can finally go out and create our own. The New Black Aesthetic says you just have to be natural, you don't necessarily have to wear one. [the "natural" was a hairstyle in the Sixties]

Lisa and Kellie Jones, 25 and 28, are Amiri Baraka(LeRoi Jones) and Hettie Cohen's daughters. Their parents were divorced when the children were young and they were raised primarily by their Jewish mother. "I was always searching for the black," says Lisa, "overcompensating as a kid. I had a lot of options, but I chose [blackness]."

Rae Dawn Chong says she's Cherokee, Chinese, White....Look in a mirror Rae...you're BLACK! Go try and marry a fucking Kennedy and see how black you really are.
--Comedian Chris Rock, 19

Since slavery some people in the muddy racial middle have had the choice of which race to claim. My octoroon grandmother passed for white when it served her interests (such as shopping for groceries for her and all her darker-skinned friends in the white neighborhoods where the markets had fresher produce and cheaper prices).

When Obama was growing up in the Seventies black and white America, like hostile divorcing parents, still made mixed kids chose sides. He chose Black and I say welcome.

-- Trey Ellis