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.

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  • Peter H.

    Really thought-provoking post. Especially the title– sums up the ideas you lay out in a way that doesn’t flatten them out but hints at all their complications. So the ideas in that short five-word sentence echo in the head as much as the language of it.

    Curious what you think of this four-month-old column by Gary Younge:
    It focuses more on what’s going on in white folks’ heads than on either Obama himself or Black opinion, & I’m not sure how it relates to music. Still curious, tho’.

  • Jimmy Saal

    Great post. I read both pieces by Leon Wynter and Joan Morgan and appreciate their words as well. I particularly liked Joan’s insight here:

    “Because really, the difference between rice and peas and black eye peas is hardly as great she, the barber or anyone else questioning Obama’s blackness might think. It’s the distance between stops on slave ship.”

  • Joy Kipp

    Hi there,

    I am creating two Obama ads for the Obama in 30-sec contest. I was wondering if you would be so kind as to let me use your Obama pic in each ad. All of the other photos I am using are either ones my husband took while he was deployed in Iraq (that ad is making an anti-war statement) or photos I took (that one talks about Obama bringing hope to America). I just need a couple of Obama to use in the last 2-3 seconds of my ad. Please let me know if you would give me permission and what else I would need to do to use your photos.

    Thanks very much for supporting this endeavor.

    Best regards,
    🙂 Joy

    Joy Kipp
    Burlington, VT