Black Like Me?

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By Marjorie Valbrun
Friday, February 16, 2007

What does it mean to be black, and who is the arbiter of authentic blackness? As Sen. Barack Obama's "blackness" has increasingly been discussed on black-oriented radio shows, at political conferences and on Sunday morning news shows, I've grown more dismayed by the day.

The discourse, occurring mostly among black people, has been dominated by questions about Obama's being biracial, his immigrant father and his suitability as a presidential candidate, given that his life story doesn't parallel that of most blacks born in the United States. Some have implied that only a black candidate whose ancestors were slaves here or who have themselves experienced the trauma of this country's racial history can truly understand what it means to be black in America and represent the political interests of black Americans.

This is a narrow-minded and divisive notion. At a time when blacks living in this country, whether by birth or by choice, should be harnessing their collective political clout to empower all black people, we're wasting time debating which of us are truly black.

As a black immigrant and a Haitian-American who has lived in the country for 37 years, I know how it feels to have my blackness challenged by native-born blacks.

It makes me angry. I'm angry for Obama, too. People are asking whether he's black enough to represent them. I ask, black enough by whose standards? Why must Obama's life follow the same track of "authentic" black folk to pass this litmus test?

Many of my black immigrant friends have also had their blackness questioned by native-born blacks who see us as "not really black." My ancestors probably weren't enslaved on American soil, but they were enslaved on Haitian soil. So how am I less black or less worthy of kinship with black Americans? How ridiculous that someone would think me unable to understand the pain of racism and the long-term costs of white supremacy and slavery.

Last Saturday, Obama's name was raised at the State of the Black Union, a gathering of some 10,000 black people in Hampton, Va., in a forum on the social and economic challenges facing black America. Top black scholars, intellectuals, civil rights leaders and opinion makers were present. Princeton professor Cornel West took Obama to task for not attending. West also criticized Obama's decision to announce his candidacy that day and to do so in front of the Illinois statehouse where Abraham Lincoln began his political career.

A thread of doubt about Obama's commitment to black America ran through some speakers' comments. Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, who has known Obama since his time at law school, came to his defense. Ogletree noted Obama's record on civil rights and suggested his scheduling conflict was a transgression worthy of forgiveness.

So this is what things have come to: If you don't walk to the beat of the black establishment, you might get kicked out of the club. What's next? A scarlet insignia for IBMs (Inauthentic Black Men)?

We don't all have to like or vote for Obama, but we shouldn't allow this debate to undermine him or discredit his stated commitment to the black community.

When did the social and political cause of American blacks start trumping the larger cause of all blacks living in this country? American blacks don't have a monopoly on blackness or suffering. We black immigrants and children of immigrants are also often stopped by police for driving while black. Ever heard of Abner Louima or Amadou Diallo? Many immigrants feel just as powerless and as excluded from the promise of America.

Yet the hopes, dreams and successes of immigrant and American blacks are also interconnected.

Black immigrants such as myself would probably not be here if not for the sacrifices of those who were on the front lines of the civil rights movement. And that's why I identify myself as black -- not that I have a choice -- with pride and without apology. But black Americans can't on the one hand complain about black immigrants consciously separating themselves from black Americans, which many immigrants do, and on the other hand say: "But you aren't really black like us."

Few American blacks can say with certainty that they don't also have white ancestors. Does that make them less black? Who knows that some distant ancestor of Obama's father was not enslaved here? The more important question is why any of this should matter. When did having slave ancestors become a barometer for political office? Surely those blacks supporting Hillary Clinton aren't holding her to that standard.

I also wonder if Obama's message of racial inclusion worries some blacks. Do they think if he reaches out to "them"(whites), it means he neglects "us" (blacks)?

Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. recognized the universality of the struggle for dignity and self-determination of black people around the world. What were our protests against South African apartheid about if not this very principle? If American blacks can view black South Africans thousands of miles away as brothers in need of their support, why are they having such a hard time seeing Obama as one of their own?

Whether Obama is ready to run, deserves our vote or has enough experience for the job are all legitimate questions. Whether he is black enough is not.

Marjorie Valbrun, a journalist in Washington, is writing a book about the Haitian immigrant experience. She can be reached

© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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