Barack X

From The New Yorker:

The more onerous aspects of Jim Crow conspired to obscure a reality key to understanding Barack Obama’s complicated relationship to black America: simply put, the colored section was far more democratic than the ostensibly free segments of America because virtually any tincture of black ancestry was sufficient to gain admission. The boundaries of whiteness required vigilant policing and scrutiny, but black people were far more catholic in our self-perception. In response, America conjured a usable mythology, one in which the product of interracial unions were uniformly doomed to suffer disproportionate woe. Fiction, folklore, and films like “Imitation of Life” cinched the concept of the tragic mulatto in American popular imagination. But the concept didn’t square with our own lived experience. There was nothing tragic about the trajectories of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Mordecai Johnson, or any other biracial black person—aside from the burden of racial inequality they shouldered along with anyone else of African descent. The activist Walter White used his nearly white skin as a kind of camouflage that allowed him to investigate lynchings for the N.A.A.C.P. in the nineteen-twenties. Obama understood this history well enough to stand nearly outside of it. In 2008, Barack Obama authored a new archetype—a biracial man who was not so much tragic as ironic. Unlike the maligned mulattoes of old, Obama wasn’t passing for white—he was passing for mixed. For those with an eye to this history it was a masterful performance, a riff as adroit as anything conjured by Dizzy Gillespie or Sonny Rollins.

Early on, observers noted Obama’s Ebonic lapses when speaking to black audiences and saw in them a sly attempt to pander to African-American voters. But they had it precisely backward: to black audiences, his ability to speak in pulpit inflections one moment and concave Midwestern tones the next made him seem more black, not less. We saw him as no different than any African-American lawyer who speaks black English at home and another, entirely more formal language, in his professional environment. Not surprisingly this has translated into confusion over who the President of the United States is. A 2010 Pew poll showed that fifty-three per cent of whites see the President as biracial while only a quarter see him as black. At the same time, fifty-five per cent of African-Americans see Obama as black while a third see him as mixed race. What the poll failed to ask, however, was whether African-Americans see those two categories as mutually exclusive. Slavery, coercion, and the randomness of social exchange conspired to ensure that virtually all of black America is biracial in some regard. Walter White had blonde hair, fair skin, and blue eyes—yet was black enough to serve as the N.A.A.C.P.’s chief executive for twenty-four years. What was known but left unsaid is that Obama was at least as black as any of the other forty million of us and biracial in the same sense that Douglass, Washington, and White were.

More here. (Note: At least one daily post throughout February will be devoted to African American History Month)

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