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If Barack Ain't Black Then Neither Am I

By Joan Morgan

So I've just spent another week wandering around in the wacky world of American racial politics only to discover that according to Debra Dickerson's "Colorblind" column on salon.com, that as a Jamaican-born South Bronx-raised woman of African descent that I'm not black and neither is the man I'm wholeheartedly hoping will be the next American president - Barack Obama.

Dickerson writes: "I didn't have the heart (or the stomach) to point out the obvious: Obama isn't black. "Black," in our political and social reality, means those descended from West African slaves. Voluntary immigrants of African descent (even those descended from West Indian slaves) are just that, voluntary immigrants of African descent with markedly different outlooks on the role of race in their lives and in politics."


"At a minimum, it can't be assumed that a Nigerian cab-driver and a third-generation Harlemite have more in common than the fact a cop won't bother to make the distinction. They're both "black" as a matter of skin color and DNA, but only the Harlemite, for better or worse, is politically and culturally black, as we use the term."

Judging from the pages of criticism Dickerson has already received regarding the arrogance and danger of playing self-appointed gatekeeper to the Republic of Blackness, I'm gonna leave all that alone. At this point, it should be painfully obvious (and I'm mean painful as in post-verbal-ass-whooping painful) that when it comes to Blackness that African-Americans do not hold the monopoly.


Nor do they hold the monopoly on the equally painful legacy of colonialism, slavery and imperialism that descendants of West African slaves have experienced around the globe.


Same shit, different boat. And if delving into all this common history proves to be too much, I would expect Dickerson not to make light of the equal opportunity racism waiting for "Voluntary Immigrants of African Descent" as soon as they set foot on American shores.

But clearly she's not the only one. A recent New York Times article broke this apparently startling news, "So Far Obama Can't Take the Black Vote for Granted". Maybe it's just me, but I'd already assumed that Black folk were politically astute enough not to back a candidate solely on the basis of a mutual melanin count, that the policies, sincerity and abilities of the candidate to affect change in the areas most pertinent to us - educational reform, health care, unemployment to name a few - might matter more.


If Condi Rice suddenly became the Republican answer to the double threat of Hill and Barack she wouldn't get my vote. Why? Because I can acknowledge her as an extremely accomplished Black Woman with an enviable shoe game and still recognize that having her as the HNIC in the White House would be a four-year extension of the Bush administration's callous neglect and bungling ineptitude.

What I wasn't prepared for, and the New York Times seemed happy to point out, was that there were Black folks who seem to feel that the distinction of being the first Black President of the United States is one that should be reserved solely for an African-American, a sentiment summarized by a brother the reporter interviewed in DC barbershop.


"Mr. Lanier pointed to Mr. Obama's heritage - he is the American-born son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas - and the fact that he did not embody the experiences of most African-Americans whose ancestors endured slavery, segregation and the bitter struggle for civil rights."


"When you think of a president, you think of an American," said Mr. Lanier, a 58-year-old barber who is still considering whether to support Mr. Obama. "We've been taught that a president should come from right here, born, raised, bred, fed in America. To go outside and bring somebody in from another nationality, now that doesn't feel right to some people."

To see black folk so closely mimic the very prejudices that white American reserved for European immigrants almost two centuries ago saddens and surprises me.


Specially since white folks have already figured this one out: That when Europeans immigrated to America, became citizens, paid taxes and contributed their substantial labor force to the economic, cultural and political growth of the country, they stopped being European immigrants and became just regular white folk easily united in the common interest of holding on to "white power", that is every bit of entitlement that whiteness guarantees in a country like America whose emergence as a superpower is historically based on the maintenance of very specific forms of racial oppression.

So I guess my question here is when are folks like me, we "Voluntary Immigrants of African Descent" considered Black? Because according to Dickerson and brother man in the barbershop it certainly isn't doesn't happen when I look in the mirror every morning and damn sure see a black face.


I don't get that honorary pass every April 15th when I pay my taxes or on the daily as I raise my American born black son. Dickerson's definition of blackness evades me even though I happen to consider helping black women (a great many of them American) navigate the quagmire of both racism and sexism as part of my life's work.

It seems Dickerson's reluctance to confer this status on us "Voluntary Immigrants" for simply just being black and loving black people irrespective of their point of origin is more a matter of willful ignorance than anything else. As she accurately points out, "We know a great deal about black people. We know next to nothing about immigrants of African descent (woe be unto blacks when the latter groups find their voice and start saying all kinds of things we don't want said)."

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 could 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.

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.

With thanks to Dr. Mark Anthony Neal at New Black Man.

Joan Morgan is an award-winning journalist, author and cultural critic. 


She is a former Executive Editor of Essence Magazine and the author of When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost - a fresh, witty, and irreverent novel that marks the literary debut of one of the most original, perceptive, and engaging young social commentators in America today.


Her work appears in numerous college texts, as well as books on feminism, music and African-American culture.


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