Barack as Black (Or not)

From Debra J. Dickerson:

Notwithstanding their silence on the subject, blacks at the top are aware (and possibly troubled?) by Obama’s lottery winnings: “black” but not black. Not descended from West African slaves brought to America, he steps into the benefits of black progress (like Harvard Law School) without having borne any of the burden, and he gives the white folks plausible deniability of their unwillingness to embrace blacks in public life. None of Obama’s doing, of course, but nonetheless a niggling sort of freebie for which he’ll have to do some groveling.

Which brings me to the main reason I delayed writing about Obama. For me, it was a trick question in a game I refused to play. Since the issue was always framed as a battle between gender and race (read: non-whiteness — the question is moot when all the players are white), I didn’t have the heart (or the stomach) to point out the obvious: Obama isn’t black.

“Black,” in our political and social reality, means those descended from West African slaves. Voluntary immigrants of African descent (even those descended from West Indian slaves) are just that, voluntary immigrants of African descent with markedly different outlooks on the role of race in their lives and in politics. At a minimum, it can’t be assumed that a Nigerian cabdriver and a third-generation Harlemite have more in common than the fact a cop won’t bother to make the distinction. They’re both “black” as a matter of skin color and DNA, but only the Harlemite, for better or worse, is politically and culturally black, as we use the term.

Great, interesting article. I would encourage you to take a look at it in its entirety. It raises some intriguing questions about the political ascension of Barack Obama particularly as it relates to issues of race and culture. I think Dickerson makes some important and powerful arguments, particularly in her recognition of the vast differences between American blacks and Africans in America. (That’s part of the reason for my personal choice to describe the former group as Blacks and the latter as African Americans.)

At the same time, I disagree deeply with Dickerson’s most important arguments; that his lack of American slave heritage has provided him a tremendous boost politically and “A non-black on the down low about his non-blackness is about to get what blacks have always asked for: to be judged on his merits”.

I just don’t believe that folks in Iowa are more likely to vote for Obama because his color is recently rooted in Africa not America. Considering the negative and limited perceptions most Americans have of Africa and Africans, Dickerson’s claim is puzzling. I agree that Obama may have benefitted personally from the details of his parentage but not in any significant fashion.

Part Two seems immediately ridiculous when you remember that Harold Ford, a black American with deep roots in the south, almost certainly lost his bid for Senate office in Tennessee two months ago because of racist fear mongering in those infamous commercials. Does Dickerson think that is an isolated situation? Have we really moved so far in two months that a black person of recent Muslim vintage and African ancestry is going to be judged simply on his merits? We’ve already seen radical fictions created about him as well as emphasis on his middle name (Hussein) and his surname altered to OSAMA. As much as Dickerson wants to keep a lid on the potential meanings and messages of Obama’s candidacy, she has struck a chord on unrealistic fiction herself.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s