The question of Barack Obama's black bona fides never seems to go away. It was reported just the other day that civil rights icon Andrew Young half-joked that Bill Clinton was "every bit as black as Barack" and then, more pointedly, that Clinton has "probably gone out with more black women than Barack."
I am a year younger than Obama and a shade or two darker, but I have been dogged by the same skepticism, the same "Stalinism of Soul," all my life.
In an essay I wrote 20 years ago, fresh out of college, I coined the term "cultural mulatto" to describe black kids like Obama and myself who, regardless of our DNA, were perfectly fluent in both black culture and the dominant American white culture. It's a lot like being bilingual. A typical day in junior high found me reading "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" while listening to Simon & Garfunkel.
I first realized that it wasn't going to be easy living in the middle one day back in the fifth grade when I was called "oreo" by another black kid before first period and the "n-word" by a white kid at recess.
Today, if a white kid called my kids the n-word, they would shut down the school and hold tolerance workshops for a month. (If a black kid called them that, that's a whole different essay.)
Back in 1979, Joan Armatrading, a dark-skinned folk singer, wrote this brilliant lyric: "I had somebody say once my black was way too black/ And someone answers she's not black enough for me."
Last month at an Obama fundraiser at the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem, where Chris Rock, Cornel West and a gospel choir were the candidate's opening acts, I was surprised to find myself one of a distinct minority of other black folks. And I was there on a press pass. For some black people, it seems that Obama's rock star popularity among whites might make them leery of supporting him themselves.
Unfortunately, many people of all colors seem to have accepted the labels society has placed on them and others, and they are uncomfortable with their own or anybody else's eccentric, specific individuality.
The fact is, I could be described by a wide array of adjectives constantly jockeying for momentary primacy. I'm blacker when I'm the black guy in yoga. I'm boojy when I ride the A train to Harlem. And I was never more American than when I was hitchhiking across Uganda.
I wasn't the first in my family to navigate between the white world and the black. When my blue-eyed grandmother, more white than black by blood, was a child, white society imposed blackness on her because back then, black was like Brylcreem: "A little dab will do ya." What they didn't know was that she used to put on a blond wig and go grocery shopping in the white neighborhoods because over there everything was cheaper. I guess that, sometimes, being an outsider wherever you go has its advantages.
I sincerely hope that the race police go the way of the East German Stasi and the KGB. Just a few years ago, however, they were still in full force. I remember when Mariah Carey first topped the charts, friends of mine groused, "Aw, that white girl thinks she can sing." Then it came out that Carey is biracial, and those same friends rushed to claim her as a soul-singing sister.
So Iwould urge Andrew Young to stop judging candidates by the number of women of color they might have dated and heed the advice of his mentor, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., judging them by the content of their character instead.