Anytime you hear a question like this, one thing is absolutely certain: the person they are talking about must be (or have been) a great success. In this case, the subject of the question happens to be the next President of the United States of America. President elect Barack Obama came literally out of no where to defeat Hillary Clinton and the Clinton machine, as well as those “mean old Republicans”, to win the 2008 presidential election in a landslide.
But what if Obama had not won? What if news had come out that Obama had a secret white mistress who accused him of rape and abuse? Would white America jump to say he wasn’t black then? Would Americans from mixed backgrounds leap to say he’s one of them, or he’s raceless? Would news periodicals and the AP run stories claiming “Many insisting that Obama is not black”? Or would they run front cover images of him darkening his features?
I wonder what the reaction would be if these same people, who now claim “Barack Obama is not black”, were to have only known the Barack Obama of the 1970s? What would they have said about him when he had an afro, played high school basketball, drank, experimented with drugs, and was “casual” about his education and future? (as his mother put it in Dreams from my father)
He still had a white mother from Kansas, and he was still raised mainly by his white grandparents. However, something tells me that those same white people and “mixed” people would not be as enthusiastic about claiming him as one of their own. I can just hear them referring to him as that BLACK burden to an otherwise “good family”. To some, he might serve as evidence as to why white women should never ever sleep with black men (because they produce such awful offspring).
No America, President elect Barack Obama is black. He is an African American, and thankfully he is smart enough and has enough integrity to recognize that. Black people come in every single shade you can think of, but we are still black. The KKK has no problem recognizing that. Nor did most white people when passing on their inheritance. It would be laughable to believe that the black offspring from rapes/relations between white slave owners/segregationists and black women would gain the same recognition and treatment (when it comes to passing on inheritance) as the white offspring of those men. Undoubtedly, there are many white people in America who are related to black people and they don’t even know it. Consider this, it was Barack Obama who brought up his relationship to Dick Cheney, not the other way around. At the height of his power as Vice President and his dealings with Halliburton, do you think Dick Cheney ever recognized Barack Obama as part of his family? Ha!
Sadly, there is still a subtle belief in America that being black is a bad thing. That explains why whenever an African American becomes incredibly successful (like Oprah or Michael Jordan), people are quick to say “they transcend race”. It is almost as if they are saying “you are so good at what you do, that we will forgive you for being black. I hardly even notice that (negative) part about you.”
When have you ever heard this type of comment said about a successful white American? Nobody says Michael Phelps “transcends race”. Nobody says that about Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, George Clooney or Brad Pitt, Celine Dion or Barbra Streisand, etc. For them, and many non blacks in general, race is not something to apologize for, nor is it something that is even addressed.
But whether we are talking about Halle Berry or Colin Powell, Tiger Woods or Barack Obama, successful African Americans with mixed backgrounds always seem to draw comments seeking to dilute, belittle, or ignore their black/African roots. Even for black Americans with two black parents, like Beyonce, efforts seem to be made to diminsh their blackness once they reach a certain success level.
I recognize that people with this mentality often consider themselves as being “helpful”. They may also claim they are being “accurate” and “honest” in their assessments. (that is, when it comes to recognizing the diversity in the ethnic backgrounds of successful African Americans). But what they are really doing is perpetuating the lie that black people and people of black African descent are inferior. They are saying that being black is a bad thing, and thus any successes from blacks (especially in terms of intelligence or beauty), comes about because the person is not really black, or the person is unusually gifted enough to overcome their blackness.
In order to truly “perfect our union”, Americans must redefine what it means to be black. That is, we must change our attitudes towards the word “black”, when speaking about ethnicity. “Black” can no longer harbor within its definition the lies of inferiority, danger, cultural weakness, criminal intentions, ignorance, foolish and rebellious behaviors, loudness and bad grammar, or any other negative or stereotypical attributes. Black must describe one’s ethnic background, physical attributes, and that’s about it.
I am even slow to suggest that culture be added to the definition of “black”, because culture is mainly tied to environment, upbringing, and social structures. Thus, a “black” person from the suburbs of Minnesota is still “black”, even if he or she does not share all of the cultural preferences or practices of a “black” person from Atlanta. Too often, African Americans who break from the black stereotypes pedaled by the entertainment industry and the media are subsequently labeled “not black” or “acting white”. Too often those blacks that dare to speak proper English are accused of “talking white”, despite the fact that some of the greatest orators in our nation’s history (MLK, Federick Douglass, even Malcolm X) were black. History shows that African Americans built their own towns and universities, even during the brutal years of Jim Crow and segregation, yet the popular stereotype only emphasizes the ghetto, and the projects, and lazy uneducated blacks seeking handouts.
Yes, whites and blacks and all Americans must look carefully at their own definitions of the word “black” if we are ever to truly unite as a country. Just as whites should not be labeled racist simply for being white, blacks should not be seen as a stereotype simply for being black. And those blacks that do reach high levels of success are still black. If they marry outside of their race, they are still black. Even if they came from mixed marriages, in America, they are still black.
Black is not confined to the jail cells, the hip hop videos, the basketball courts, the stripper poles, the ghettos and stereotypical images in the media. Black exists in corporate board rooms, in the upper ranks of the military, in ivy league schools, in high fashion magazines, in law offices, in doctors offices and scientific laboratories, in NASA space programs and architectural/engineering firms, in the police forces and congressional offices, and yes…now…black exists in the White House!