Plunging Back Into 'Blackness'

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 20, 2008

Last week on "The McLaughlin Group," a show so fusty that plumes of dust waft from the television screen upon the first note of its brassy theme song, a curiously retro word floated into the Sunday morning blathersphere: Oreo.

Host John McLaughlin was not speaking of cookies. He used it while interrogating his guests about presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama's blackness. To be exact, McLaughlin bellowed: Does it bother Jesse Jackson that "someone like Obama, who fits the stereotype blacks once labeled as an Oreo -- a black on the outside, a white on the inside -- that an Oreo should be the beneficiary of the long civil rights struggle?"

McLaughlin's decision to dredge up a race-baiting slur, which historically was intended to suggest someone was self-hating and inauthentic, had the feel of a 1,000-year-old blowhard trying to be provocative and clever. It was delivered in a tone that spoke of anthropological curiosity -- as if he had been chauffeured past a crowd of black people 50 years ago, overheard them talking, and picked up a bit of their odd patois.

Despite McLaughlin's stilted tone, it was yet another reminder that the question of Obama's blackness -- too much or not enough -- refuses to be put to rest. Obama has ping-ponged between not being black enough when he was mostly known as the Harvard-educated lawyer who gave rousing speeches, to being too black when his now former minister Jeremiah Wright was on the loose preaching about a racist America. Now he's back to not being black enough because he's been talking about personal responsibility among black Americans.

The debate has become absurd. When he plays basketball, is he blacker? Or, as the comedian Bill Maher joked: "He bowled a 37. . . . Is he black enough for you now?" And how about when he tucked in his polo shirt and went for a family bike ride? Was he only kinda-sorta black then?

It would be splendid if the man could simply just be in the same way as presumptive Republican nominee John McCain. (No one's asking if he's too white or not white enough.) But we have not arrived at that mountaintop yet and so, in the meantime, Obama must serve as symbol and trope. He must represent his multiethnic constituency and he must represent.

This is not a matter of skin tone. It's about culture, sensibility and perception. While Obama's ascendancy has brought many issues into the spotlight, one of the most confounding -- at least for far too many pundits -- is the notion of blackness, what defines it and who gets to determine whether the prevailing definition is correct.

Back in the segregated days when calling someone an Oreo carried significant resonance, black culture seemed more clearly defined. It could be boiled down to where one lived, one's pastimes and politics. Mostly, though, it was overwhelmingly rooted in a struggle for equality and dignity and in a shared history.

As black Americans move farther away from that history and the struggles become more diffuse and nuanced, it becomes harder to zero in precisely on the nature of blackness. Too many talking heads imply that it is essentially the underclass, suggesting that middle-class blacks are somehow disengaged from the true black experience. Does shopping at Whole Foods mean that you've turned in your black card? Excommunicated due to arugula consumption?

Trying to nail down a definition becomes particularly difficult when judgments about a person's identity ignore the subtleties. When Obama talks about personal responsibility, he's not saying anything that hasn't been discussed by other black Americans over dinner tables, in churches and barbershops. But assessments aren't being made on the content of the message, but rather its wrapping. In the world of sound bites and blog postings, we are defining blackness based on speaking style, gait, clothing, home town, alma mater, favorite sports, preferred foods and the like. In its current issue, Ebony magazine highlights the notion of "cool" as something quintessentially black. Ebony says Obama is cool. Does that make him black enough? Paper magazine, a mirror for the lower Manhattan avant-garde, also declared Obama cool. But does that lose him black points?

Obama supports affirmative action and believes in the beneficence of governments. Black! Yet the fact of his unusual childhood -- Hawaii by way of Indonesia -- sparked early questions about whether he was black enough. Then look at the background of Clarence Thomas. He grew up poor in the segregated South and shares that historical bond of struggle and disenfranchisement. Black! But he also has been criticized as not black enough because of his critical views on affirmative action.

When did it become so hard to be authentically black?

For a certain generation of middle-class blacks who sent their children to prestigious, predominately white universities, the worry was not of their kids failing but of their succeeding and being perceived as having forgotten their roots. It is as if they fear blackness is as fragile and ephemeral as a dandelion puff.

We have gotten to a stage in our politics in which we repeatedly and mistakenly define blackness by what it is not. Hopefully, we will manage to evolve to a place in which it is defined by what it can be. When pride in self and family and one's personal story will be all that's necessary to declare oneself a race man.

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