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Brian Charles: Blackness: What it is(n’t)

Washington Journal: the Inauguration

Posted: January 9, 2009 5:51 p.m.
Updated: January 11, 2009 4:55 a.m.

B.C. goes to D.C.: Signal Staff Writer Brian Charles' Washington Journal continues in The Signal and on Join him on his journey to our nation's capital for the historic inauguration of President-elect Obama.

Editor's note: Third in an exclusive series as Signal Staff Writer Brian Charles prepares to travel to Washington, D.C., to cover the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama.

I'm 6 feet 6 inches tall. I can't dunk a basketball. In fact, I'm a horrible basketball player, a worse dancer, and to at least one white American, I am "less black" than she is.

The notion that blackness, whatever that is, is confined to a cultural space crowded with crossover dribbles, slang and the latest dance craze is - well, crazy. But blackness, at least mine, is continually questioned by black and white alike.

Now I have company among the culturally ambiguous.

New York Daily News columnist Stanley Crouch thinks Barack Oabama is less black than I am. Well, at least Obama doesn't share my uniquely African-American experience.

"Obama makes it clear that, while he has experienced some light versions of typical racial stereotypes, he cannot claim those problems as his own - nor has he lived the life of a black American," Crouch said in the New York Daily News on Nov. 2, 2006.

Crouch's analysis begs the question: What is black? The answers have personal implications for bi-racial kids who live on the racial divide between black and white. The implications mean a lot to black Americans who struggle to drain a three-point jump shot from the corner and can't rhyme on beat. It's an internal question. Race is complicated. My mother doesn't appear black, my grandmother's skin is pale and her hair straight. The only tell-tale signs of either of these women's blackness are family pictures of their fathers. Neither one of these women would tell you they are anything but black.

So what is race, then?

My favorite inquisition on race came from the aforementioned white woman who declared she was blacker than I. Well, what does this mean? I knew her and all I could think was that her definition of black revolved around the hip-hop dance classes she took at night and her smattering of black friends with Brooklyn addresses. What is black?

Crouch's central theme to the black experience and black culture is the shared legacy of slavery. Crouch insinuates that the key component of black culture is emotional baggage from this experience and how it gave birth to cultural expression both good and bad. In Crouch's vision, blackness is overcoming a legacy of family and cultural dysfunction. But I see this as flawed.

Black Americans' experience of slavery is common and peculiar at the same time. Blacks experienced slavery across the Caribbean and in Central and South America. What Caribbean blacks especially have that American blacks don't have is a homeland. This gives them a sense of national identity that Jim Crow, Reconstruction and disenfranchisement stole from black Americans.

What Crouch misses is America's ability to culturally marginalize not just blacks but almost any group who comes to its shores. America asks people to assimilate. But into what, and what does that mean? Senator and former presidential candidate John McCain said America was founded on Judeo-Christian values and will remain a country whose core values are Judeo-Christian. What we ask in assimilation of people from non-Judeo-Christian backgrounds is to check a piece of you when you arrive at the border, and take on the values of the primary group who founded the country.

My generation of blacks rejects this notion of assimilation in ways that previous generations didn't, and maybe that's our contemporary definition of black. It is a rejection of assimilation. It is a burning of the cultural assimilation draft card.

The notion of assimilation itself is a cultural affront to people's sense of identity. Imagine if we stopped the national celebration of Christmas, canceled all the Easter egg hunts and instead took Ramadan off from school and shut down businesses on Saturdays to recognize the Jewish Sabbath. Would we be any less American?

The level of Obama's authenticity is irrelevant. In fact I'll dare to say the son of a Kenyan academic and a white woman from Kansas is even more inspiring than if Obama were the son of two black Americans yoked in the legacy of slavery. Obama represents plurality. Civil rights at its core is a fight to recognize, embrace and celebrate the plurality of America.

And that is black enough, white enough, brown enough, rich enough and poor enough for all of us.


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