Tuesday, February 27, 2007

My recent dialouge with a journalist regarding Barack Obama's "Blackness"

Recently, the airwaves have publicized the African American community's questioning of Barack Obama's "blackness". After further investigation, the political hot potato regarding Barack's "authenticity" smells of the familiar rat like scent of the right wing machine at work.

The small murmurs by AM radio talking heads about the Democratic nominee for President has grown to a loud cry as their distorted machinations have morphed into media circulated reflections of the African American community feelings towards Barack Obama.

In a recent article titled "Black Like Me?" , Marjorie Valbrun of the Washington Post voiced her dismay at the constant questioning of Mr. Obama's ethnicity by the black community, siting the State of the Black Union event recently held in Virginia.

I took her article to task pointing out some key elements missing from her piece. It's a pretty long and drawn out read, but I hope you'll take as much time as necessary to read our exchange as you will in choosing an elected official as your representative.

Here's what ensued:

Reb: I found your article to be somewhat misguided on several fronts.

For all of the so-called questioning of whether Obama is considered "black enough" by the African American community, you seemed to bypass the cherry picking on the medias part who has a long and storied history of touting (Ann Coulter's recent bullhorning of an acid laced Stanley Crouch article) our divisions more-so than our collective harmony.

Your Cornel West for example didn't exactly affirm the opinion that Obama's blackness came into question. He clearly addressed Barack's lack of participation at the event. I think you looked past the recent phenomenon that has transpired in recent years where race neutrality of mainstream blacks are praised over African Americans who take um bridge to the realities race play in our country. And you didn't embellish on the very question you voiced in your article:

"if he reaches out to "them"(whites), it means he neglects "us" (blacks)?"

Obama, much like anyone else, should endear himself to the black community for our vote.

You can't compare the embrace of Hillary Clinton by the black community to that of Obama. She's had a 15 year head start riding the coattails of her saxophone playing, black baby kissing husband.

Obama is a newcomer on the scene to many Black Americans, and the community rightfully wonders if he is willing to teeter the boat by identifying himself with things "distinctively" black.

We are fully aware that in doing so, it may remove some of the luster from the race neutral sentiment America loves.

The bottom line here, it may cost him votes.

There's been an attack on most initiatives deemed "black" over the past 20 years. Black issues are passe, and the old generation poverty pimps like Al and Jesse are reminders of the past America abhors.

I for one do not want Obama to follow their old playbook, and I sense that the graybeards from yesteryear want Obama to cow-tow to them the with the same song and dance that's entertained them for years.

That is at the heart of the matter here. It is a generational issue Obama is confronting. He doesn't fit the norm they're accustomed to and isn't cut from the civil rights generation cloth.

But at the same time, he has to establish amongst African American voters that he isn't fearful of outright riding for a cause or issues deemed black in fear of losing some votes.

Right now, I see the redundant game of divide and conquer being played before us. The right wing media has jumped on the black community's speculation of Obama. The talking points questioning his blackness by certian media types circulated prior (Rush Limbaugh and Melainie Morgan called Barack a "Halfrican" MONTHS ago) to what's now presented as a major chasm between the African American community and Obama. And it seems that many are falling for its misinterpretation.

However disheartening, we cannot allow these distortions to dismiss the legitimate questioning by the African American community of why we should vote for Barack Obama.

Majorie: Thank you for your thoughtful response. I think the article really touched a chord because I've gotten nearly 500 emails so far from around the country and abroad from folks of all hues and nationalities.

Your comments illustrate just how complicated and politically fraught this issue is. You make many valid points and I wish I had gotten more space in the piece to address some of them. I must say I was not as concerned about his political prospects as I was the tone of the debate about his blackness. I think it hurts us all and I was sick of it. I focused on a very narrow part of the larger debate about blackness -- the issue of his immigrant father and the fact that many black Americans don't consider black immigrants as black -- because it was something that I could speak to based on my own experiences.

As for the media, I agree they are partially responsible for sensationalizing this issue, but they got help from the black pundits, columnists, and social critics who started this. Frankly, it was those who questioned his blackness in the first place that I wanted to take to task. The media may be fanning the flames, but it was some black folks who started the fire.

That said, I agree wholeheartedly that Mr.Obama should have to earn the black vote, just as he has to earn the votes of others. I in no way implied he should get a pass just because he's black. But I do believe he is being held to a tougher standard than the other candidates by some blacks. As for Hillary Clinton, she may be riding her husband's coattails, but she also should not be given a pass.

My comments about Mr. West were cut back a bit, but the point I was making was that Mr. Obama's commitment to the black community was very much in question at that event. Prof. West, who I actually like and admire, made a point of saying that Mr. Obama knew well in advance about the event but chose not attend. Another speaker, a black historian, mentioned Obama's choice of the Old Illinois State House as a backdrop for his announcement and went into great detail about Lincoln's record on slavery and the common misconception that he freed the slaves out of goodwill, etc. It was very clear they were not only criticizing Obama for not attending the event, but also questioning the symbolism of how he choose to kick off his campaign. Charles Ogletree came to his defense because the critics were starting to pile on. (You can check it out on C-Span's website.)

I hope I have given you some context about my opinion piece.

We of the African Diaspora are a complicated people indeed, sometimes to our own detriment. Let's hope the public discourse moves on to more important and enlightened topics in coming weeks.

Reb: I must say, I'm very happy that you took the time to respond to my email.

But I must say some things in conclusion.

In regards to blacks starting the firestorm questioning Obama's blackness. This was a circulated talking point amongst republicans as far back as December.

Melaine Morgan
Rush Limbaugh
Glenn Beck

Blacks did not start the so-called fire. Obama's blackness is the political hot potatoe the right wing machine initially kindled before any token black columnists or social critic questioned Obama's "blackness".

And regarding the questioning of his authenticity, you've been extremely vague on when and by whom this was questioned. The puzzlement and resentment behind Barack's absence at the State of the Black Union was totally called for. As many times as I've heard the black elitist choir complain about our lack of collectively getting together to address the problematic issues plaguing our community, should we not be somewhat dismayed at Barack's non-appearance?

That is not questioning his black "authenticity" as you consistently alluded to in your article. That was the rightful questioning of his commitment towards the African American community.

And historically, the panel is correct on President Lincoln's feelings towards African Americans. The cookie cutter version of President Lincoln goodwill towards slaves that's been fed to the masses through our textbooks is, quite honestly, dishonest. It's unfair to ask those knowledgeable of this to curb their insight for Barack's sake.

That too was not questioning his "authenticity", but again questioning his commitment to the African American community. To stand on the side of the Lincoln myth while noticeably missing at the State of the Black Union would naturally raise some eyebrows. But I'm certain had Barack made an appearance, he would've been embraced like the first born son returning home.

Ironically, Stanley Crouch who penned that hateful article towards Barack, was re soundly booed at a previous State of the Black Union. Mr. Crouch's feelings are not widely shared amongst the African American community as many may believe no matter how much press time he and other pundits of a darker hue are selectively given.

What I'm seeing here and through the media at large is the blurring of the lines where the legitimate questioning of Obama's commitment to the black community has turned into the questioning of his so-called authenticity.

I think you may have innocently and mistakenly introduced your own personal experiences as a black immigrant coming up in this country and applied it wrongfully to the issue facing Obama. I myself am a child of two Nigerian immigrants who did me no favors, for which I am thankful, giving me a distinctive African name. But I'm also wise enough to know the questioning of his "authenticity" isn't commonly discussed among black circles when speaking on Barack. And I also know there's a distorting dynamic in play that the African American community has little control over.

Our collective thought process has gone through the traditional meat grinder. Wound, spun, and misconstrued as something less than sophisticated or intelligent, while always altogether different from its original intentions.