There’s a lot of noise that’s been made this week about comments made about Barack Obama, by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid over a year ago, and by former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich. To my mind, they are just two sides of the same coin.
Reid, it is reported in a book, referred to Obama as a “light-skinned” African-American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” It’s in the same category as Joe Biden’s 2008 description of Obama as “clean and articulate.” Whereas Blagojevich suggests that he is blacker than Obama in a recent interview.
What Reid (and Biden) were saying is is that they were comfortable with Obama because he is more like them than other black people they have known. They are more comfortable with someone like that. I think they were speaking the truth, but the truth is not politically comfortable. And I dare say that much of the United States felt the same way; Obama was not a “scary black man” who sounds like – heaven help us! – Jesse Jackson, so we can vote for him and pat ourselves on the back about just how enlightened and “colorblind” we are.
Blago was questioning the AUTHENTICITY of Obama’s blackness, that there is a checklist of things that makes a “real” black man, from the way he talks to the beliefs he has. Hey, Obama plays basketball and likes jazz; shouldn’t that count for something?
It was the Blago remarks that affected me more personally. There seemed to be this notion, at least when I was growing up, that certain features signified a real blackness. My father used to make a point of my sisters and me speaking “traditional” American English, not some sort of Ebonics. This worked well in surviving growing up in my predominantly white, Slavic neighborhood. It wasn’t as successful in dealing with some of the black kids who would mock my bookish ways and my “white” way of talking. Heck, some of the white kids that hung out with the black kids would suggest that they were “blacker” than I was, because they talked “ghetto”; some of them would put their tanned arms next to mine to check THAT aspect as well.
I mean, I listened to Motown and Atlantic, but I was fans of the Beatles and folk music and classic music. There seemed to be these rules that “authentic” black people could only like certain kinds of of music. That lineage of blues, r&b, soul to hip hop and rap were OK. Classical was not. Neither was rock, which made NO sense to me, since rock and roll evolved from blues and R&B. The artists that performed the outre music like Dionne Warwick (pop), Charley Pride (country) and Jimi Hendrix (rock) weren’t considered “black enough” by some folks, and this really ticked me off.
There was this Red Cross training event at Manlius, NY near Syracuse. I went as my high school’s representative. On the penultimate evening, there was a talent show. I got on stage with a pick-up band, and everyone thought I was going to sing. Instead, I got out a comb and a piece of paper and played a couple minutes of blues riffs. I got a standing ovation; it was one of my favorite moments in my life. The next day, everyone was signing photos and booklets. This one young woman signed my booklet,m on the back, “You’re a nice guy, but you’re no soul brother.” You could have taken a baseball bat and hit me in the solar plexus, then hit me again, and again, and I doubt it would have hurt as much as that one sentence did. I probably looked at that piece of paper periodically for the next couple years, and if it has left my possession, it’s because I lost it, not thrown it away. The ultimate lesson, I suppose, was that I couldn’t worry myself with being “black enough”.
My (condescending, black) godmother died about a decade ago. A year or two before that, I saw her for the first time in many years at the (black) church in which I grew up. She asked me what church I was going to in Albany, and I told her. “That’s a WHITE church, isn’t it? ” I said, “predominately.” There was a point when her disapproval could, and did, really wound me, but not by thast point, fortunately.
There seems to be these periodic calls for “racial dialogue in America”. Yet the Reid comment, which seems to me like a pretty good opportunity, was was largely quashed with an apology and “let’s move on.” I found it particularly interesting to hear conservatives like Lynn Cheney trying to make the most hay about this, and me ending up largely agreeing with George Will. Premise: almost certainly, the color of his skin and the way he speaks made some people more comfortable with Obama. Discuss.
That said, I’ve become increasingly convinced that what’s made Obama “not scary” has also made him possibly less effective as President. I’ve heard those on the left say he should be cracking heads to get the Democrats in line on health care, and those on the right say he should be taking names over the Christmas near-airline disaster. I think it’s not affectation but self-training that has made Obama preturnaturally calm. He HAS the office; maybe it’s time, if he can, to get just a little bit scarier.