Wake Up!

Shortly after the inauguration, Bill Moyers Journal had two African-American women as guests on his show, Melissa Harris-Lacewell and Patricia Williams of Princeton University and Columbia University, respectively.

Now ordinarily I don’t spend much time watching Bill Moyers Journal. Actually, I should say that I don’t spend much time watching Bill Moyers Journal seriously. It is usually quite entertaining listening to a bunch of leftists pontificating and huffing and puffing.

But this particular section of the program stuck with me

BILL MOYERS: Obama himself once said he was trying to raise himself as a black man in America and, quote, “Beyond the given of my appearance, no one around seemed to know exactly what that meant.” Have you given any thought as to why he chose to be African American instead than bi-racial?

PATRICIA WILLIAMS: The word “choice” is probably a little bit overstated because I don’t think that anyone really chooses when you are apparently-”


PATRICIA WILLIAMS: -dark skinned. And at the same time, I do think that the question of African American manhood is a very freighted cultural identity. And I don’t think it’s just somebody with his background that struggles with that. I have a 16-year-old son who was struggling to understand what growing up as an African American man means. I wouldn’t separate it from the general struggle of what it means to be, to appear to the world, in a particular way that, to which people assign, you know, extra cool or a particular way of dressing or a particular way of speaking. And I think it’s quite complicated for anybody.

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, there seems to be some evidence in the first autobiography, “Dreams From My Father”, where he suggests that part of that choice has to do with angling towards being his dad, that that absent parent gave him something to which he was trying to aspire, that he’d heard lots of stories about what an enormous personality and an important man his father was. So I think part of the choice of blackness had to do with him trying to come into being like Barack, Sr.

But the real symbol that we see every moment is his choice of Michelle Obama. And in many ways, Michelle Robinson, who becomes Michelle Obama, is representative of a very particular choice on the part of Barack, that as a multi-racial, Harvard Law educated, African American man, those of us in the black community get what the choices for dating and marriage were for Barack.

And he chose a woman as tall as him, as smart as him, and black from a distance. She’s a woman who is not someone who could have ever opted out of blackness. And here he is rearing two African American daughters, on the South Side of Chicago, with a smart, tall, fabulous black wife. And it, you know, it helps me forgive a lot of policy ills for Barack when I see Michelle, only in the sense that there is for me a sense, at a core level that he sees me, that he sees my daughter, who’s seven years old, that whatever our disagreements are, there is a fundamental goodwill around his sense of the humanity of African American women. And that is, I think, a very empowering connection back with African American voters.

Then, this past weekend, on CSPAN2’s Book TV, I saw David Brooks interviewing Gwen Ifill about her new book The Break-Through: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama. Paraphrasing a little bit, David Brooks observed that Barrack Obama and Deval Patrick faced some of the same challenges, “most notably, were they black enough”. Ms. Ifill said that it is “always an infuriating question that keeps coming up, always from black audiences, black folks…”. She goes on to say that the question is really “are you down with the cause?” and “who are you going to represent if I put you in there?” and “are you selling out to these other people or are you going to be speaking for me?”.

And then this

For a lot of African Americans, the best thing that Barrack Obama had going for him was Michelle Obama, especially among black women. Well he married a black woman. But he didn’t have to marry a black woman. That must mean something.

Wow. If I hear one more person saying that Michelle Obama sealed the deal for them, I might possibly conclude that Obama picked Michelle to further his political career rather than, say, because he found her to be the love of his life.

I think that maybe a lot of white people that voted for Barrack Obama are hoping that his election will make these kinds of conversations much less common in the future. Though I didn’t vote for Obama, I can say that it is certainly my hope that we have heard the last of questions such as “are they black enough”.

And for all the “black audiences”, “black folks”, and “black women”, I hope that they take some of their stimulus rebate and purchase a copy of Spike Lee’s “School Daze“.

Wake Up!

Wake Up!

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