By Patricia Wilson-Smith
CNN.com reported recently that the world was almost spared yet another question about whether or not Senator Barack Obama is ‘black enough’ during the National Association of Black Journalists’ Convention held this week in Las Vegas. We were almost spared. Not quite.
When asked about his ‘black-titude’ in the myriad of previous debates, interviews and town hall meetings that have come before the NABJ convention, the Senator has delivered the same by now very well-known line that garnered applause during the CNN/YouTube debate -the one about the question of his blackness not coming up when he’s trying to catch a cab. For whatever reason Byron Pitts, a national correspondent for CBS, felt it needed to be asked just one more time, as if in some way his re-phrasing of the question would shed a light on the subject that would illuminate us all with it’s brilliance and increased relevance.
CNN reporters describe Senator Obama as relaxed and in his element as he stood boldly in front of the room full of black journalists. That might explain why when Pitts chose to question the Senator’s blackness yet AGAIN, he gave an answer that was deeper and more elucidating than any he’d given to the ‘are you black enough’ question before, and in a way that should put an end to the question once and for all, though only time will tell.
Senator Obama turned the question back around on the journalists in the room, and suggested (in essence) that they should ask themselves why a man who by almost every other measure clearly is black, would be questioned repeatedly about his degree of blackness merely because of his mixed heritage or because he appeals so greatly to non-blacks. The Senator pointed to his record of community organizing, his stand on the issues, etc., as evidence that he most certainly is ‘black enough’, and wondered aloud why that wasn’t enough for some people.
His question was a rhetorical one, but I think that if it doesn’t beg for an answer, it at least deserves a closer look. Our tendency as black people to ask these kinds of questions to those among us who for whatever reason have the ability to relate to people of other races and cultures is age old – that we would turn the question on the one man in our history who had what it took to become the first truly viable African American candidate for the office of the President of the United States means that collectively, we might need to start taking a look at ourselves.
I myself am not the deepest thinker in the world, and I can admit that. But I know all along I’ve felt a certain discomfort when I’ve heard the question of blackness posed to the Senator, and now after much self-introspection, I know why.
As a young black girl growing up in the seventies, I was constantly slapped in the face with my racial identity. First, I was too black, a child of desegragation, so I was indoctrinated early into the belief that in order to get a decent education, I needed to be bussed across town to a strange school full of white kids. It didn’t matter what the real motives for desegregation were; the message I got back then was that I needed to be plucked out of my all-black neighborhood and school and integrated into the white world in order to have a chance at success. Before long I was being bounced from all-white school to all-white school in order to find a curriculum that was challenging enough to hold my attention. I’ll never know whether or not I would have been any less successful if I’d stayed in my neighborhood schools, but I was a good student and very intelligent, and I did much more than hold my own with my new classmates.
Before I knew it, I was being called too white – a gifted student with a strong love of learning that had nothing to do with my ethnicity, but everything to do with my natural curiosity about all things academic, and a sincere desire to excel, I was soon alienated from my neighborhood friends because of the special programs I was able to participate in, and labeled someone who ‘acted white’ because I was comfortable in my own skin, even as I embraced new people, new experiences and new ideas.
Then – back to being too black. As an elementary school student, I won admission to an exclusive private school because I out-scored most of my school district in standardized tests. The school was so beautiful and regal that it seemed more like a castle. I spent precisely two days attending classes there before my mother received a call from the school’s administration asking her what my race was, because she had neglected to fill it out on the proper forms upon my admission. A few days after that, I was released from the school because they discovered that they had already reached their quota for minority admissions before I was accepted. Too black. Back to public school.
I understand now that the intentions of those who thought that desegregating our public school systems could somehow begin to fix our racial ills were mostly honorable. I realize that what was at stake was a battle to change hearts and minds, in ways and through challenges that I was far too young to understand at the time. But while on the one hand I believed I was lucky to have the opportunity to be removed from my depressed surroundings and placed in the midst of more fortunate children in their clean schools with their new textbooks, on the other hand I begin to get a sense that my blackness was being compromised – always, always the struggle with too black, or too white.
Now, I’m a proudly strong and confident black woman, with 42 years of life under my belt to clear up my perspective. Now I know that the reality is, what it means to be black in this country has changed and was changing even back then, evolving into something much deeper than what it had been before, certainly deeper than just the school I attended, or the neighborhood I grew up in. The reality is that what it means to be black in this country this day and age defies a neat definition.
Being black in this country now means, regardless of your beginnings, you might one day be a wealthy, successful black woman, married to a white man. Being black could mean you may have been educated in all-white schools, even raised by a white family, but gone on to become a great advocate for black causes. Being black in this country means that you may have grown up in the inner-city, and been told that you had no opportunity or hope of making anything of yourself, but that you fought your way out through hard work and perseverance, maybe because you were a brilliant scientist, a really talented athlete, or a prolific writer. And being black in this country means you may have been born of a white mother, a Kenyan father, and raised in a small apartment on a beautiful Hawaiian country side. It could mean that you spent time in Indonesia, and that maybe even because of your mixed heritage, you devoted your life to the public service of all people, those less fortunate, disenfranchised, who had no voice and needed your help, no matter what their race.
The Al Sharpton’s and Jesse Jackson’s of the world don’t own being black anymore than the Oprah Winfrey’s and Bill Cosby’s do, because being black in this country has come to mean so many different things, and Senator Obama knows that. His answer to Byron Pitt’s question was brave, insightful, and indicative of his ability to get past the ridiculousness that threatens to demean the important process of electing our next world leader. To ask a man that has worked tirelessly in the inner-city neighborhoods of Chicago helping to rebuild communities, a man that has stood side by side with black religious leaders to solve problems in the worst neighborhoods in the city if he’s ‘black enough’ is nothing short of ridiculous. Like Senator Obama, I think those that even dare ask that intensely stupid question seek to strip him of his blackness because they feel a certain discomfort over his bi-racial ethnicity, and are unable to relate to his culturally diverse background. Me? I consider that both those aspects of him have done a great deal to shape who he is as a man, just as my experiences as a young child worked to shape the woman I have become, for better or worse. In my mind, Senator Obama’s unique life experiences gives him the kind of depth of character that is needed to be a leader of inclusion. Be he black, white or some funky fuschia color, Senator Obama has the right vision for this country, and that’s all that should really matter.
But I can’t help but ask the question – to those people who would withhold their support for Senator Obama because he’s not black enough – it couldn’t really be just about that, right? I mean, isn’t he at least several shades more black than Hillary?