Saturday, November 17, 2007

Black like us

Cultural flamethrower and hanging judge Stanley Crouch’s indictment-by-origin of Barack Obama in the Nov. 2 New York Daily News suffers from an obvious myopia about how history gives way to the present day, how old ancestral conflicts resurface in the reflexes of the moment, how and shared historical heritage isn't necessarily as convincing a determinant of commonality as shared contemporary experience is.

In one of the most corrosive comments made concerning Obama's ethnicity, Crouch writes that Obama's bona fides as a black man are suspect. "After all, Obama's mother is of white U.S. stock. His father is a black Kenyan. Other than color, Obama did not - does not - share a heritage with the majority of black Americans, who are descendants of plantation slaves."

"So when black Americans refer to Obama as 'one of us,' I do not know what they are talking about."

What they are talking about is something besides history, that series of cascading antecedent events you can't do anything about. Most black Americans aren’t engaging with Obama and his ever-widening presidential campaign at the level of his personal history – his birth and childhood being events he had no control over; his heritage, like our own, a fact of life at the innocent, vulnerable outset of life. African Americans have been, apparently like Crouch, long plagued with retroactive vision, an insistence of looking back instead of looking forward. This tragic misdirection of vision has its legacy in everything from the rate of incarceration for young black men to the continued decline of African American health.

What Obama proposes, and what many Americans embrace him for, is taking nothing less than the risk of the courage, the nerve — yes, the audacity — to look ahead, not because of our history but in spite of it. The themes of his campaign call for working past the usual pressure points, intraracial and interracial, and to see the things we do have in common – both as Americans and, more privately, more personally, as African Americans.

Crouch’s focus on the candidate’s historical origins is one from a purely academic perspective, an abstract vision of clarity from the world of ivy walls. For Obama's black supporters down on the ground, it’s another story. At least once in the campaign, Obama related that he was passed up a cab driver in New York -- an experience once common in the city. Notwithstanding the fact that such snubs don't happen that much there anymore, when Obama was passed up by that cab driver (who may have gone down the street and picked up a white passenger instead) – guess what? That’s the level of discrimination too many black Americans still encounter, to varying degrees, every day. In that everyday respect, Barack Obama is very much black like black America.

Black Americans still very much still share what Crouch calls “a common body of injustices” with people around the world. Blacks in Mexico and Latin America continue to face discrimination based on skin color, and people of color are routinely targeted for hate crimes in countries from Russia to Germany. Taken as a whole – from Obama deprived of a taxicab to racially motivated slights and attacks – black Americans have a common cause with black people worldwide, obvious without speaking, as plain as the faces we wear, the ancestry we share, and the popular culture we permanently embody. Palestinian teenagers wear basketball jerseys with Shaquille O’Neal’s number. A little boy sprints around the bazaar in Tangier on market day wearing a Michael Jackson T-shirt. Will Smith is a global box-office phenomenon. Years after his last fight, Muhammad Ali is still one of the most recognized, and revered, people on this planet.

Around the world, people want to be black like us. Not black like you, Mr. Crouch. Not even black like Barack Obama. They want to be black like black America.

When that cab driver passed Barack Obama, do you think the driver considered the ancestral origins of the man on the curb before screeching away? No. Hell no. He wasn’t thinking about ancestry, he was reacting to the color of the man hailing that cab. And that’s the world where most black Americans live today – a world that understands, in ways both positive and poisonous, that we have much in common even when we think we have little in common.

To start down the slippery slope of intraracial divisions, to play the old game of blacker-than-thou -- only the slightest variation on the “paper-bag” rule common to some blacks at the turn of the 20th century, that cotillion "Our Crowd" set who used the color of a paper bag to decide who their friends were within the race -- is to jump back into the worst kind of divisiveness, a divide-and-conquer behavior that is truly counterproductive.

Obama’s campaign is succeeding precisely because for many Americans it represents the first real, credible, quantifiable opportunity for attitudinal change in American government perhaps since the presidential campaigns of either John or Robert Kennedy, and certainly since the 1992 Clinton campaign. That that groundswell of support should be in the service of an African American candidate is, for his supporters, so much the better. His campaign ratifies the possible truth of the American promise, the American trademark: Everybody gets at least a shot at the brass ring. Even a brother with a last name that’s not from the Social Register, or the log books of slaveholders in the American South.

If Obama becomes the Democratic nominee in 2008, it will be a milestone step toward a reframing of America’s long and agonizing dance with race and identity. Many hurdles remain, not the least of them being the challenges of telling black Americans that in the everyday world his experience as a black American is similar to their own. Identical would be too much to ask for, Mr. Crouch. There's diversity within singularity.
Image credit: Crouch:

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