Monday, October 15, 2007

Is This Black Enough For You?

Over the years I have read countless publications with various takes on the life stories of a variety of polarizing black people of influence. One example is seen in reactions to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. The reactions are especially strong regarding his claims to having himself been victimized by racism, especially by those with different political perspectives. The picture often painted of Justice Thomas is one of a man who is out of touch with his people and whose life and achievements have little value for the average Black person in the United States. Though it generally goes unsaid, the inference is that somehow, Justice Thomas "just isn't Black enough". Justice Thomas has some unexpected company in this "Not Black Enough" Club of Distinction. Though the reasons differ, Barack Obama has had to deal with the the same perception because of his father's African roots and his mother's mainstream White American heritage. It appears that because the specifics of his background differ somewhat from that of others who share his ethnic blend - his parents met voluntarily in contrast with other African Americans whose heritage is of a slave past - many simply do not believe Mr. Obama's background is "Black enough."

This issue reminds me of the movie "Cotton Comes to Harlem" where a popular Big City politician began and ended his campaign speeches with a long listing of the "proofs" of his "blackness" followed by the ringing refrain, "Is THAT Black enough for you?" Justice Thomas seems puzzled that his background does not appear to be "Black enough". Though he was born into a difficult economic situation, raised by grandparents and worked hard to overcome a stack difficulties, his story is often presented one that has no relevance to the difficult times facing many Blacks today. President Obama had a more cosmopolitan upbringing that helped give him perspective and compassion that transcends many differences and allows him to connect with a variety of people. Yet, there are those who question his ability to speak meaningfully into the "Black Experience" in the 21st Century because he's just too hard to pin down in terms of background.

The questioning of the "Blackness" of these men, highlights a significant challenge that confronts the contemporary African-American community. Will African-Americans allow ourselves the latitude to enjoy a variety of experiences and perspectives that will benefit the nation as a whole and stimulate new ideas and solutions that will build us up as a people, or will we allow ourselves to be pigeon-holed and stereotyped in a way that will reduce us to a caricature of a people with only superficial cultural markers left as our defining cultural legacy? I'd like to think that while the school of hard knocks is part of our legacy as a people, so is the school of hard work. Style and chic wardrobes may characterize much of our dress, but the style manuals of academic communication ought also to be part of our cultural arsenal. And while we all admire the undeniable strength of athletic excellence and achievement on the athletic courts and fields, the strength of character should characterize the way we do business in our neighborhoods, in the board room and in the courts of law.

There may be a number of valid reasons that Americans question the divergent political stands of Justice Thomas and President Obama. Nevertheless, let's not devalue the real arguments by focusing on what amounts to a 21st century "Paper bag test" - a test where a paper bag was used to measure the "Blackness" of one's skin tone, be it too light or too dark. Let us instead recognize that in a nation as large as ours, there will be a variety of expressions of Blackness - some with which we are familiar, others with which we are not - that all come together to make us all better people regardless of our backgrounds and a better country over all. This variety of expression must be allowed for our nation to shine to its greatest capacity. This is a critical cultural necessity that speaks to the wellbeing of our nation and I hope that's Black enough for you!