Friday, February 23, 2007

Not Black Enough

This is last week's news but that's how it goes sometimes: I'm befuddled by the arguments among leading black political figures about whether Barack Obama is "black enough."

The facts aren't in question. Barack Obama's father was a black Kenyan, his mother a white Kansan. The old southern word for this genetic mixing was "mulatto." In the peculiar classification of American society, where your ancestry is sometimes more important than your actual skin color, Barack Obama is clearly identified as African American, or (as we used to say in the sixties), black, despite the fact that I've known Indians who make him look like Michael York. The issue, of course, is that Kenyan father, a man who grew up a free man in a reasonably free country and came to the U.S. to attend college. A man, in short, with no personal connection to the American experiment in slavery, or the Jim Crow laws.

Obama's run for the presidency, however, has sparked this sort of reaction:

Some African American leaders came out against Obama because he announced his candidacy Feb. 10, the same day as the State of the Black Union, an annual event organized by Tavis Smiley to gather prominent African Americans. It drew 10,000 people and would have been a perfect venue, those leaders said.

Author and Princeton University Professor Cornel West said Obama's decision to announce in Illinois instead shows he "speaks to white folks and holds us at arm's length."

The Rev. Al Sharpton of New York, who ran for president in 2004, was also upset.

"We cannot put our people's aspirations on hold for anybody's career, black or white," said Sharpton. "Just because you are our color doesn't make you our kind."

I don't know what has the "black leadership" more annoyed, the fact that Obama grew up either in Hawaii (known for its cosmopolitan race mixing) or outside the U.S. altogether, thereby missing out on the essential racial injustices which everyone else had to put up with, or the fact that he's the first black candidate for President in the history of the country who actually has a sporting chance to win it. Or could it be because he never talks about the issues of black America, but only about the issues of America? I assumed he announced his candidacy in Illinois because that's where he was elected to the Senate. The people of Illinois are his employers; they have a right to know he's applying for a new job.

No one has mentioned this, but I wonder if the traditional black leaders also resent the fact that, when you hear Barack Obama speak but can't see him, you can't tell he's black. You certainly can't say that about Rev. Sharpton. Obama speaks pure midwestern American, without the "black accent" that even many well educated African Americans have. I'm not talking about "ebonics"; just a distinctive, not quite southern twist of pronunciation and phrasing. Not all blacks have it; northern blacks in particular have northern accents; but almost all the people who have it are black. People underestimate how much they are judged on their speech patterns.

I thought that both Professor West and the Reverend Sharpton did themselves a disservice with these public remarks. They sounded envious; they sounded petty. They sounded like children bullying an unpopular new kid. I wonder what they will say when President Obama takes the oath of office, as I'm quite sure he will one day, whether it's in 2008 or later. He has plenty of time; he's only in his middle 40's.


  1. Anonymous6:07 AM

    I understand why they think that, but I agree that they've made a strategic mistake. On the other hand, they have made it easier for people who define blacks, but not corporations, as a special interest in the pejorative sense to vote for Obama. The difference between American blacks who are descended from slaves and other Americans with clear African ancestry (in terms of modern man - we are all descended from Africans, of course) is culturally significant, as is the difference between blacks with the physical features the Klan loves to ridicule and other blacks. If it weren't, the Willie Horton ads would not have worked for Bush Pere.

    Would that black leaders hadn't taken this tack, because while as a Southerner I have no problem understanding where they are coming from, I think it is a hindrance to where they are trying to go.

    Anonymous David

  2. That last remark is spot on, Anonymous David, and the more I think about it, the more relevant it becomes. As a white person of only incidentally Southern extraction (my father grew up in Missouri and Kansas), I hesitate to comment on black culture; but I read the newspapers and follow current affairs. It seems to me that one of the issues in the black community is that they can't yet put slavery and its repercussions behind them.

    Maybe it hasn't been long enough. Slavery was a horrible thing (for both sides, I think); and the Jim Crow laws carried the after effects well past World War II. However, the number of blacks living today who actually experienced segregation - the separate bathrooms and drinking fountains, the seats in the back of the bus - is dwindling. Maybe in another generation, or two, there will be no one living who personally experienced segregation, as today no one living personally experienced slavery; maybe then the black community will be able to stop looking over its shoulder for the KKK and start looking forward.

    The new problem is the victim culture that has evolved in the inner cities; we see it here in Oakland. Poverty alone isn't the reason; blacks in the Jim Crow era were poor without what's going on now. The family structure has dissolved; women raise children alone, on welfare, men sell drugs, fight, and go to jail, and the children scorn education because it's "too white". And now the children are killing each other because of the plague of guns made available by the blind insistence on the Second Amendment. This is devastating, and almost worse than slavery; at least the slaves valued family ties, and tried to keep their families together, and had faith in God.

  3. Anonymous6:34 PM

    ...the children scorn education because it's "too white".

    hedera, this might be the most devastating problem of all. It is a phenomenon that seems to have grown much worse since I retired from teaching. I think the only answer here is smaller schools, not just smaller classes. The principal of a high school in one of the rural counties near Gainesville wrote an excellent opinion piece a few years back. His high school had about 600 students back then, and included both potentially underachieving, problematic black and white students. But because a high school that size can function as a single community in which every teacher recognizes every student in the school, students could not disappear into anonymity. The principal stood outside the main door as students arrived in the morning and greeted them. That can't happen in a megaschool. He argued that once a school exceeds 600-700 students, the student body begins to break up into different communities.

    Nothing will be done along these lines, of course. Administrators in general are not interested in this line of reasoning, nor are principals in general interested in schools without a large student body from which their coaches can draw athletes, in particular for football and basketball. Nor are school boards interested in the "costs" of maintaining smaller schools, in spite of the actual costs of what we are doing.

    Maybe there is some model for applying the 600 principle in large schools. I'm not sure what it would be, but the current approach in urban schools is an educational disaster, and neither privatization nor charter schools is an answer, although if every school were made a charter school or a magnet school, so that every student, not just a portion, would have whatever education benefits either of those approaches engenders, maybe they would be of value. There is nothing I hate worse than a magnet school for x students when 6x students need what that magnet school offers. Tokenism is effing evil, just as the failure to fully fund and empower Head Start has been effing evil for decades.

    We do not as a society care about every child. We never did, and I suspect we never will. And I expect the gated community mindset to become more entrenched in education.

    I think the fact that we never cared about either adequate law enforcement in black communities to provide blacks in those communities with security equivalent to the commitment to security in white communities, or adequate educational opportunities for students in predominantly black schools, are still two major stumbling blocks to moving ahead toward a better America.

    Undeniably, black leaders need to refrain from anything that makes matters worse, and they need to be both stronger and wiser than their adversaries. Those were, for me, two of MLK,Jr's most important attributes.

    And we need to do everything that engenders a spirit of We are all in this together.

    Anonymous David

  4. You're so right about school size. Oakland and San Francisco have both had some good results with small charter schools; but, of course, it's the problem you mention, hundreds of kids are helped while thousands more are not. I remember my high school, back in the early 60's in a small agricultural town (which is what Napa was then), had two classes and 1500 students; my graduating class had 750 students. It did not foster a feeling of community. I was recognized by all the teachers only because my mother was a mainstay of the PTA, and I look like her.

    I wish I thought you were wrong about our unwillingness as a society to fund either education or law enforcement in the black community; but the evidence supports you. The Bay Area newspapers are now beginning to carry stories about valiant black teenagers trying to get a decent education and a life; but since they almost always include incidents where kids have been gunned down on the street for no evident reason, often by other kids their own age, they are not especially encouraging. If I could do one thing to improve the situation, I would make every single gun in the Oakland city limits disappear. Every one (yes, the cops' too); and every time someone brought a new one in, it would disappear too. It's too easy for 14 year olds to get them and go berserk, with no real concept of the consequences.

  5. Anonymous8:52 PM

    There were 850 students at Winter Park High School when I graduated in 1960, 135 in my graduating class, and those were considered largish numbers at the time, but it was still small enough for a pretty decent sense of community. And there was very little cliquishness or separation into groups according to income. It was actually pretty amazing, because that was not true of all the schools in the area, especially not the larger ones. But is was also true of the smaller high schools.

    Winter Park has also always had a connection with the liberal northeast, and those wealthy people who came to Winter Park felt no need to be blue blood separatists, and the working class people, including me, were accepted - no, make that felt like and were part of the school. We had our juvenile delinquents, but even the jds were generally not really anti-social. And people did not shoot each other (except for angry rednecks and their domestic battles that did at times involve artillery).

    Pity some sort of Star Trek beamer upper can't be designed to dematerialize and transport to a smelter all the guns in Oakland, including, as you justifiably suggest, the guns of the police. I swear I think the seductiveness of handguns (and guns like uzis) is part of what drives people to shoot each other. It's certainly a seduction Oakland doesn't need.

    Guns were not problem for us when I was growing up, because the only interest we had in them was for hunting. We didn't own handguns, only .22s and shotguns. Owning a handgun was not a badge of honor. Owning a good duck gun was.

    I saw on the Weather Channel that Oakland is at least one of the top 5 cities for sustainability, up there with San Fran, Portland, Seattle, and the supriser for me, Chicago. But then Daley's father, for all his machine politics, never used the mayor's office to enrich himself, being more concerned with using that office to advance whatever he understood to be good for the city.

    Anonymous David

  6. Anonymous7:47 AM

    I meant 235 in my graduating class, which is why it was considered largish. It was a significant increase from only a few years previous, so to WPHS it was large. But I knew virtually everyone in my graduating class, the only exceptions being people who had just moved to Winter Park. Trivia note, and then I'll give my fingers the Stop Typing command. Our school bus route had the same driver all 12 years I attended Winter Park schools (of course we were too cool to ride the bus after 10th grade, even though only some of us had cars - I didn't). There were zero incidents on Bus 51.

    The schools were still segregated, but the school I referenced before was an integrated formerly all white high school. The principal, who was the author of the article, was black. The only variable that might well be significant (I really don't think race is, based on my experience, including teaching 4 years at a high school that integrated my second year, and then fully integrated with the closing of the black school my third year) is that it is a rural high school.

    Intriguing side note (and then I really will stop) is that the principal of the white high school (no one ever pretended the black school had better facilities and therefore the white school should be closed), who was from South Carolina and a segregationist, had the professional integrity to go to the black high school to address the entire student body and tell them they would receive an unconditional welcome, and that Apopka Memorial High School would be as one for all its students. The most amazing part is that he meant it and delivered on his promise. It took me a couple of years to find out that he had opposed integration. But he was an educator first, and if someone was a student in his school, by god they were a student and to be treated as such. An old school American whose word was his bond.
    Anonymous David

  7. What a fascinating school history you have, David. I don't remember Napa Senior High with anything like the same fondness - possibly because there were 750 people in my graduating class. I've been to a few reunions, most recently last summer, and the odd thing is that I remember people when I see them, but I can't recall them unless I do.

    Back to the subject of the black community and its educational issues: kudos to your high school principal, the man who does what's right in defiance of his own personal opinion is really impressive. I try so hard to avoid blaming the victim, and God knows the history of African Americans, with slavery and all, is horrifying; but sometimes I just want to stand up and scream, "Get OVER it! Take responsibility for yourselves, now, and move on." Slavery wasn't fair, and neither are a lot of things that happen; you just have to pull up your socks and go on. Whoever said it was going to be fair?

  8. Anonymous6:43 PM

    Believe it or not, hedera, I've never been to a class reunion, but I still have some very close friendships from those days, but most of us went our very separate ways, and I'm no good at casual hellos. I'm liable to pick up right where I left off in a conversation with that person 40+ years ago. And I can't stand all the standard questions at reunions.

    You are quite right about the debilitating effect of playing the victim role, a mindset that gets no one anywhere worth going. I guess what I long for is a truly honest acknowledgement of the past, both toward slaves and native Americans, as part of cohesive social progress. Southerners in general seem to hide their residual prejudice behind legitimate criticism like yours, but maybe that's the point for black leaders: take away that hiding place for Southern whites (and even more so for urban northern whites).

    I know Southern isn't really capitalized, of course, but I'm a Liberal Secular Southern Democrat whose sweetie on occasion wears a G.R.I.T.S ball cap (Girls Raised in the South). It's a tiny indulgence.

    Anonymous David

    OK, Stephen and Boggart, where are you guys?

  9. Anonymous6:49 AM

    hedera, I was particularly intrigued by the reminder in this obit of what Arthur Schlesinger said about multiculturalism. While I think he might have been too dismissive, it is still thought-provoking.

  10. Anonymous8:56 AM

    Sorry David, been busy…

    I have always thought that holding on to things that happened to your particular social group years ago was a bad idea. As both of you have said, you can’t move forward if you are to busy looking back. Back in the 1830s and 40s, my early Mormon ancestors were chased from NY to Utah loosing land, possessions, and lives all along the way. I have never thought that I needed to be compensated for this. It didn’t happen to me. Go back far enough in ANYONES genealogy and you will probably find that an ancestor was either a slave, or a serf which was probably worse. What matters is what you make of your life now, not what happened to your ancestors long before you were born.

    I heard about the “not black enough” quote also and was saddened that even the leaders of the black community can’t look forward either. “No man having put his hand to the plow and looking back is fit for the kingdom” seems an appropriate idea to learn from. Move forward by letting go of the dead weight in you past. You can hold to your culture and still move forward.

  11. Anonymous4:57 PM

    Hello, Stephen. Good to read your thoughts.

    Anonymous David

  12. I read the Schlesinger obituary, did you mean the comparison between Afrocentrism and the KKK? Schlesinger never pulled his punches but he wrote some extremely thought-provoking and interesting essays.

    I don't have any particular ethnic injustices to resent, but I come from a family where it literally would never occur to anyone to expect compensation for any form of "injustice". What happens, happens; you bury the dead, take care of the living, and keep moving. Your Mormon ancestors would have understood that, I think. I won't say that some of us might not have tried to exact revenge for a personal slight... but to expect to be compensated for something that was done to an ancestor? Not.

  13. Anonymous10:00 PM

    I lost my comment, and I don't think I can reconstruct it. But, I thought he was over the top with that one. And while I would probably have argued with him, I thought his notion that multiculturalism clashed with the melting pot idea was worth pondering again. I think this especially because of my concern that the rabidly anti-Castro, anti-commmunist Cubans in South Florida do not seem to me to be embracing the Constitution and its Bill of Rights (same could be said of other groups, too), but rather they are obsessed with their special identity and terribly intolerant of anyone else or any ideas other than the narrow, seemingly tribal notions which bind them. I do get the impression that younger Cuban-Americans are beginning to embrace more of what we would understand as common American values and a common American identity.

    Perhaps the greatest sin of apartheid, followed by entrenched, defiant racism, is that it forbade a common American identity for blacks (they aren't the only ones, of course).

    Anonymous David

  14. You're right, of course, David - that one was over the top. As for the Cubans, and the whole idea of melting pot versus multiculturalism: well, the language metaphor says it best. The first generation doesn't speak English; the second generation is bilingual and speaks English with little if any accent; the third generation doesn't understand the grandparents.

    Your intolerant Cubans (and they are intolerant; they're as focused a single-issue group as the gun lobby) are still largely first or at most second generation. They're the major reason we still embargo Cuba; everybody else thinks it's silly (except Fidel Castro, which is a really odd thought).

    They value the freedom of speech they have in America. They haven't yet learned that freedom of speech isn't real until the people they hate have it too. From what you say, the younger Cuban-Americans are beginning to see past the hate, and to get the message; and in time, the older ones will die off and we'll lift the embargo. And Ah-nold will be able to get his Cuban cigars legally.

  15. Anonymous2:45 PM

    I will be soooooooooooooo glad for
    Ah-nold, bless his steroid ravaged body. I gather he is having to join the "Left Coast" environmental movement, for which I'd be willing to go get the cigars.

  16. It's very hard to read Arnold. You have to remember, he's an actor. What I (reluctantly) like about him is that he seems to be more interested in accomplishing things than in scoring political points. The last California governor to take a serious crack at upgrading the state's basic infrastructure was - Pat Brown, in the early Sixties. All the governors in between have been too busy showing how "tough on crime" they are - which is why the California prison situation is a national disgrace - to be interested in improving any infrastructure that didn't have bars on the doors.

    Arnold can have his smoking tent all to himself as far as I care.

  17. Anonymous9:41 PM

    Gotta give Arnold any credit he is due, and if he's more interested in the educational infrastructure than more friggin' prisons, more power to him. Maybe Maria is more of an influence than I realized. If so, good for her.

    Anonymous David

  18. I can't give him a whole lot of credit on education, I'm afraid. The infrastructure he wants to upgrade - and it all needs it - is roads, bridges, and water supply. He wants to build more dams, which is going to bring him smack up against the wild river preservationists. I'm of two minds on that one; I want to preserve the wild rivers, but we have to have water, California has relatively little if you don't capture and store the snowmelt.

    But he is starting to realize, I think, that the current prison system is unsustainable; we can't afford to keep all those people in jail.

  19. Anonymous4:15 PM

    I got caught in a moment of education-related optimism and read a hope into your comment that I realize wasn't actually there. Too much to hope for, I guess.

    One thing I suspect Arnold can never cast off is his Republican anchor, and my entire adult life experience forces me to view Republican ideology as an anchor (of the wrong kind). Wish it were otherwise. Democrats always benefit when wise conservatives help balance progressive enthusiasm, but conservatives never take us anywhere. That is why only a Democrat could have led us out of the Republican catastrophe of the 20s and through the 30s, and why JFK, faults and all, could be a legitimate visionary, whereas DDE could not.

    GWB has visions, to be sure, but the kind that come from a substance-abuse damaged brain, a dysfunctional arrogance, and a terribly simplistic, primitive version of being "born again." Spiritually Jimmy Carter he ain't.

    Anonymous David

  20. Anonymous David, "having visions" is not the same as "seeing things"...

  21. Anonymous7:10 AM

    You mean once when I was obliterated on Beau Geste port back in my college days, that wasn't a vision? I was on a vision quest of sorts, I think.

    Anonymous David

  22. Anonymous9:12 PM

    Whatever convinced me to carry eight classes this semester, one a self-developed online class, is beyond me. My bow case is gathering dust, and my little pots of mixed from ground substances illuminating paint have hardened under their covers. Still…

    When I was in high school, thousands of years ago, outside Washington D.C., our school was integrated. We gained one back student. There were no problems, she wasn’t in the band or any of my classes, and I only saw her from a distance. I don’t remember anybody caring, although it made the newpapers. (Big school - approx. 650 in my graduating class.)

    During the summers I went to camp in North Carolina. There were, now that I think about it, no African-Americans at the camp either. Absolutely none at all and that includes the kitchen staff. But, on the way to and from camp, Mom driven, I remember my sensibilities being hit by the “colored” bathroom versus the “white” bathrooms, the ‘No colored Served Here” signs, and the occasional unpainted, screen doored homes that simply looked like something out of a history chapter on the Depression.

    We hosted a American Field Service student from Spain once. She had spent a school year in Mississippi, and we were showing her D.C. prior to her heading home to Spain. We took her to a movie that was popular, and she was aghast there were “colored”, although that wasn’t the noun she used, right there in the theatre with us. I was stunned into silence at her saying what she said, let alone that she said it in a normal tone of voice that was probably heard and politely ignored by those around us. It was a serious education that gave new meaning to the song from South Pacific, “You’ve go to be carefully taught.”

    As mentioned, my high school was rather large. The D.C. area was bulging at the seams, and all that made high school reasonable to me was being in the band. Band members knew each other, saw each other every day, and were in classes with other band members. It was a sub-group formed of the beginners, the smallish junior band, and the concert/marching band. It was a community of similar interests and goals. We socialized, freshmen through seniors, together, went to games together, (Well, we marched so we sat together.), went on field trips to march in parades together, were in the orchestra for the school musicals together, and the rest of the high school was on the periphery as far as we were concerned. I remember there being ninety in the marching band my ninth grade year, because we got measured for brand spanking new uniforms.

    Thankfully, a fair bit of time ago, I worked in a pre-K through 12 school. It was an international school, multi-cultural and multi-racial. There were about 600 odd students but never more than 700. Everyone did, more or less know everyone. The big kids held doors open for little kids without being asked. There was a definite sense of community, which my high school, over all lacked.

    I think you are all correct. Numbers are the key. Once we no longer know the majority of the people around us, it doesn’t matter what we do quite so much. Who are the observers anyway? They don’t matter to us. Only our small group matters, and going out of your way to show the amorphous unknown “outsiders” they don’t matter, can lead to some mighty outrageous behavior.

  23. Boggart, your reminiscences are always interesting. You made me think back to my high school days. Napa High School was not integrated; but then, it wasn't in the south. Napa County in the fifties had a sort of gentlemen's agreement among the real estate agents that property was not for sale to blacks; this didn't break until the early sixties, I knew the Methodist minister who started the "open housing" campaign.

    I remember distinctly that I never met any black kids until I started playing in the Vallejo Junior Symphony (viola, if you care); Vallejo was where all the blacks lived, they worked at the shipyard. Whites who worked at the shipyard commuted from Napa, at least some did. My husband and I watched South Pacific recently, and I was stunned by "You've got to be carefully taught"; I don't think I'd ever heard it before. It didn't, so to speak, get played on "Hit Parade".

    Like you, I found my real community in high school in music: I sang in the Napa High School-Junior College Choir, and hung out with the singers, also the orchestra and band. I tried at one point to become part of the youth community at the church I attended; but it wasn't interested in including me (the clique was so strong it was almost visible), and I gave up on it.

  24. Anonymous9:28 AM

    I was researching Apopka Memorial High School and found Anonymous David's mention of our school in 7:57am entry. I was a junior at AMHS the year that the black high school, Phyllis Wheatley High, was closed and we all became one at AMHS (1969). Our principal was NOT black. He was Roger A. Williams, and he let us know from the start that he would not tolerate any actions of hate and racism. I do not know what his personal feelings were, but Anonymous David was "right on" in that he was first and foremost an educator. Even though the integration meant we were going to be extremely overcrowded, both student body presidents talked and worked with him, and he saw us through a nonviolent transition. He realized that the black high school was having to lay their mantle of being a strong sport powerhouse in the state to integrate with us, and pointed out to us how both sides had something to give up and something to gain. He was a wise man, and I'm proud to have known him!
    I didn't take the time to read ALL of your entries, but since it started on political tones, let me say that any and all of our political candidates would do well to have the good common sense that Roger Williams had and lived.
    ML AMHS, class of 1971