The system break man, child, and women into figures
Two columns for who is, and who ain’t niggaz
–Mos Def, “Mathematics” from Black on Both Sides
The recent dustups that have swirled around him both within the Black community and outside of it highlight the prickly and complicated issue of Black authenticity. On one hand, Senator Joseph Biden found himself with a severe case of foot-in-mouth syndrome when he referred to Obama as “clean” and “articulate”. Separately—and actually before the Biden incident—I’d been reading several commentators–Stanley Crouch (subscription required) and Debra Dickerson, to name two–who suggested that Obama either wasn’t Black enough or that he wasn’t Black at all.
I’m not here to debate whether or not Obama is Black or whether or not he’s “Black enough.” For who? For what? Learning to recognize pathology is the first step towards healing.
My friend Leon Wynter, who recently posted a thought-provoking exploration of the idea that Obama is being placed in the “exceptional,” transracial black category, wrote:
. . .when so called exceptions thrive on white turf, especially on white terms, they are likely to be trashed as inauthentically black. In the case of Obama, writer Debra Dickerson recently declared he was not black at all. This, of course, is the black version of whites who say, "I don’t think of (Michael Jordan, Colin Powell etc.) as black at all."
So everybody has an investment in the notion that exceptional black folks prove some kind of rule. Their investment leads them both to excuse or dismiss these African-Americans from their blackness.
Joan Morgan declared her solidarity with Obama by writing a piece “If Barack Ain’t Black Then Neither Am I” where she beautifully lays out what it means to be an immigrant (Jamaican-born) but raised in America (the South Bronx, no less). She says:
So let me offer some insight. When black people immigrate to America we are not at all exempt from the experience of being Black American and not only because we will inevitably be subjected to American racism. We learn your history. We absorb your culture. Some of us even acquire your accents. We do this as a matter of both acclimation and survival because we recognize the potential power we unleash by finding the distinct commonalities between our histories and our culture. Perhaps if Dickerson took a moment to do the same she would replace these limited notions of blackness and truly expand Black America into a diverse, multi-ethnic powerbase, savvy enough to elect the most viable BLACK presidential candidate America has seen in over 20 years. [Emphasis mine]
The point of all this is that by getting into discussions of who is and who ain’t, we’re only shoring up the walls that keep us from full participation in the American culture. By doing so, we’re giving up our claim to that which is ours. We give up the chance to move both the discussion and the country forward. We’re maintaining some well-tended fences on the plantations of our minds.
All of which is a significant part of how we got to where we are when it comes to Black rock.
So, yeah, Obama is Black rock.