A lingering question about a question from Monday’s YouTube/CNN debate, when Sen. Barack Obama was asked why some voters don’t seem to think he’s “black enough.”
What in the world do people mean when they ask this? Is there some Platonic ideal of perfect Blackness by which we can measure and evaluate someone according to how closely they approach the ideal?
If so, what/who is the ideal? Who is a sufficiently authentic black, and how does he/she differ from Obama? I’d love to see a thoughtful African-American writer dissect this matter, but fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
To this pale Caucasoid, the whole business seems weirdly old-fashioned, refracted through a long-outdated view of blacks.
Perhaps during the heyday of Jim Crow, before the Civil Rights movement, there might have existed, in the minds of most white people at least, some monolithic idea of the “black” person. Any such simplistic image, of course, would have been possible only because so many white people had such limited experience with black people, and many of the blacks they were likely to meet were poorly educated and in subservient positions.
Today, with so many avenues of advancement open to African-Americans, the reality is much more variegated. There are dozens, hundreds of black images. Is Puffy Combs black? Colin Powell? Randall Robinson? Leonard Pitts Jr.? Barry Bonds? Oprah Winfrey? Spike Lee? Ron Kirk? Chris Tucker? Shelby Steele? Seal? Henry Louis Gates? Michael Vick? Louis Farrakhan? Joe Morgan?
Are they saying Obama is way more educated than most black folks? He is, yes. (He’s also way more educated than most white folks.) Are they saying he’s got much more money than most black folks? (ditto whites).
I’m guessing here, but I wonder if some of the “black enough?” questioners have a limited and pretty negative idea of the black experience they believe Obama has not shared. Are they saying he hasn’t suffered enough of what they take to be, even in 2007, the oppressive racial reality of blacks? Obama seemed to pick up on that aspect of the question when he half-jokingly said he’d had trouble hailing cabs in Manhattan–thus establishing solidarity with poor and middle-class blacks who’ve been similarly dissed.
Is he being forced, unfairly, to define his essential life experiences downward (I’ve been racially profiled by cabbies, like you) rather than upward (Uh, yes, I was the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review)?
The next time this question comes up, and it will, I wish Obama would just say, “What are you talking about? Explain. Define this Ideal Black.” Then we could all get in on the discussion.