Saturday, May 25, 2024

Black like thee?

January 14, 2008 by  
Filed under News, Weekly Columns

( One might think that Hughes’ poem Cross, which was first published in 1926, would be outdated and totally irrelevant in today’s American society. After all, haven’t we become a better nation since those Jim Crow days of the past?

Perhaps. Then again, perhaps not.

Barack Obama’s candidacy and people’s reaction to it — especially in some analyses I’ve heard since his loss to Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire Democratic primary — prove that race still matters in America.

If nothing else, that candidacy has people talking about the dreaded R-word out loud, and at least in some circles, there are debates about whether biracial people should choose one race over another in defining themselves.

It seems we’ve moved from the question two years ago of whether Obama is black enough to one about why he doesn’t claim his whiteness.

Lord, have mercy.

I’ll get back to the biracial issue in a moment, but first let’s talk about whether there’s still a substantial number of two-faced Americans who act one way in public and then show their true colors, if you will, behind closed doors or the curtains of a voting booth.

There’s one very interesting theory about why the New Hampshire primary results were so different from what the majority of the polls were showing just 24 hours before balloting began. Some polls had Obama winning by double-digit percentage points.

Clinton, of course, won with 39 percent of the votes to Obama’s 36 percent.

Some pundits speculate that many white voters told pollsters that they were prepared to vote for Obama, an African-American, but once they were alone in the confines of the booth, they did what they always knew they would do: voted for a person who looked more like them.

The same process did not play out in Iowa, where Obama had won handily five days earlier, because the Hawkeye State conducts caucuses in which votes are not cast in secret. People have to look one another in the eye when proclaiming their preference for a particular candidate.

I’m certainly in no position to say whether such analysis has any merit, but I’m certain that some Americans will not vote for Obama because he is black — just as some are likely to support him for the same reason.

No doubt there are those who will cast ballots for Clinton because she is female, and there are some who could never bring themselves to vote for a woman for the highest office in the land.

I certainly want to believe that most Americans are past the racial and gender divide and will choose their party’s candidate, and ultimately select a president, based on who is the best person for the job.

I want to believe that, but the truth is that I’m not sure I do.

But now to this conundrum for some folk who can’t get over the fact that Obama refers to himself (as do the media) as an African-American. As I’ve pointed out before, with a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas, Obama is one of the few people in this country who is most definitely an “African-American.”

Some people are wondering why Obama can’t be more like golfer Tiger Woods and simply not talk about his race, or at the very least talk about his dual racial makeup.

I don’t know much about biology,” one reader wrote, “but I believe that the offspring of a black father and a white mother is as much white as black, with regard to race, unless maybe it’s been determined that the offspring has inherited more black genes than white genes. So, if he’s not going to be called what he is (biologically), why isn’t he called a white man once in awhile — or just an American?

“You reckon there’s some journalistic or, perhaps, political expediency in calling such a person, especially when he is running for the office of president in the United States, ‘a black man’?”

I’ve had to explain to people that in America, “race” is more than biology. The labels, categorizations and expectations that define individuals for their entire lives are social constructions — man-made inventions used to put people into “social” boxes.

By the way, in our Western society, those definers were white men.

Black people didn’t come up with terms such as Negro and colored and mulatto.

Black people didn’t come up with the “one-drop” rule — that one drop of “Negroid blood,” no matter how white one happened to be, made that person black. And God knows it wasn’t black people who came up with the terms quadroon (one-fourth black), octoroon (one-eighth or fourth-generation black ancestry) or quintroon (fifth-generation black ancestry). Those terms were often used to describe mixed-race people in the early part of the 20th century.

Obama knows his race, not because he arbitrarily decided to choose one over the other but because America already had defined it for him.

If anyone has any doubts about his or her race or ethnicity, just walk out of the front door on any given day — someone in America will remind you of what you are.

I’m a witness.

So as we move forward with the presidential campaigns, there will be noble attempts to keep us focused on the real issues of the war, the economy, health care, education, etc. But there also will be plenty of instances when we will be forced to think of race and gender.

It’s the American way.

* * *
My old man’s a white old man

And my old mother’s black.

If ever I cursed my white old man

I take my curses back.

If ever I cursed my black old mother

And wished she were in hell,

I’m sorry for that evil wish

And now I wish her well.

My old man died in a fine big house,

My ma died in a shack.

I wonder where I’m gonna die,

Being neither white nor black.

Langston Hughes


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