Black Like Me

Identity is a funny thing. Almost as long as humans have been humans, we have derived our individual identities from the collective identities around us. We differentiated ourselves as individuals and tribes through our linguistic, ethnic, religious, and sexual groups. This is still, largely, the case in traditional cultures today. If one is born in a small, rural village in the center of Africa, one derives one’s identity from the tribal structure, the language of his people, their religious and cultural traditions, etc.

The modern world, though, has forced a reevaluation of our means of deriving identity. Witness, for example, the current conflicts raging in the Middle East. Iraqis, as one example, have traditionally derived their identity from their locality, their tribe, their religion (especially sub-groups within their religion), and, to a lesser extent, their language. When the nation of Iraq was artificially created following the end of foreign rule of Arab lands, one of the greatest challenges the new government faced (and is still facing) was the inability to get Iraqis to think of themselves as Iraqis, rather than as Sunnis or Shi’as or Assyrians or any number of other, more parochial, identities.

The United States presents a particularly fascinating example of the confusion regarding identity in the modern world. Americans are almost all immigrants or the descendants of immigrants from other nations, beginning with Europe and Africa and now including immigrants from every continent and nearly every nation on earth. As these various immigrant groups came together, identity became an instant problem. What did it mean to be American? Could one still be, for example, Irish and American? Italian and American? African and American?

The problem reached a particular pique at the dawn of the 20th century with a massive influx of immigrants from nations which hitherto had very little representation in the United States. The changing religious and ethnic demographics prompted a great deal of soul-searching. There were those who asserted that American identity was contingent upon Anglo-Saxon ethnicity. There were others who argued for a broader definition. The conclusion was a kind of stalemate in which each immigrant group lost nearly all aspects of its traditional national identity, including its language and most of its cultural traditions, in favor of becoming American. Religion maintained itself as a holdout and largely does still today, though this is changing as well.

This inconclusive settlement blocked those of any and all European ancestries together under the umbrella term “white,” a conglomerate which necessarily derived its content meaning from its contrast with a similarly concocted idea of “blackness.” This status quo persisted in large part throughout the 20th century, but has proven itself unfit at the dawn of the 21st.

Witness, for example, the case of Rachel Dolezal, an African-American studies professor and NAACP leader recently “outed” as “white” by her own European-descended parents. Apparently, Ms. Dolezal has been passing herself off as a black, or at least biracial, woman for some time. She was, for a few years, married to a black man. Her “son” (apparently, actually her adopted brother) is African-American. She claims that her very curly current hairdo is “natural.” She participates in African and African-American heritage events. She champions social justice causes on behalf of the African-American community. Yet she seems to have had no ancestors from Africa at all.

Dolezal’s case is not the first of its kind in the fraught world of identity in America, however. Numerous examples could be brought to the fore as interesting case studies in racial identity. The story of James Weldon Johnson as he presents in his 1912 Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man presents one interesting example. Johnson, the son of a light-skinned black woman and a white man, did not realize that he was anything other than “white” like most of his classmates at a non-segregated school in Connecticut until a teacher accidentally “outed” him in elementary school. He records running home crying to ask his mother if he was indeed a “nigger.” Johnson spent much of his life confused about his racial identity, passing himself off at times as a black man and at others as a white man. Eventually, he became the first “black” president of the NAACP.

One might also cite the example of John Howard Griffin. For his 1961 book Black Like Me, Griffin, a white man, used heat lamps and chemicals to darken his skin. He was able to pass himself off as a black man in the segregated South in order to write his book about segregation from the perspective of an “insider.” For that matter, Homer Plessy of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) fame was only 1/8th black and had to inform the authorities on the segregated train that he was African-American so that they would forcibly remove him from the whites-only train car.

An even more modern and interesting example is that of President Obama. Obama, the son of a white American woman and a black man from Kenya, does not share in the historical experience and culture of African-Americans. None of his ancestors were slaves in the American South. None of them were sharecroppers. None of them were part of the Great Migration. None of the unique characteristics of African-American culture are part of his inheritance from either of his parents, including the African-American vernacular language and the black churches. Obama has, however, largely adopted the African-American community as his own and they, in turn, have adopted him as one of their own.

But how is President Obama’s case different from that of Ms. Dolezal? Certainly, Obama looks more like the common African-American, yet he no more shares in the cultural heritage and history of that group than does Ms. Dolezal. And what about Johnson and Plessy, who were so fair-skinned that they appeared white to most people who saw them?

As I said, identity is a funny thing. And it is particularly a funny thing in the United States, where most of us have lost all of the means by which we might have traditionally derived an identity. Perhaps it is the United States, once the locus of racial conflict in the world, that will prove the concept of racial identity, a fairly modern idea compared to other traditional means by which identity has been derived, to be an absurdity.

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2 comments

  1. The difference between Dolezal and Obama are simple. Dolezal didn’t grow up as a black person and connot identify with racism accordingly. Even though the ancestors of Obama weren’t slaves he still had to deal with the ignorance of racism and bigotry throughout his life. Maybe that’s why the African-American culture ‘adopted’ him so easily.

    1. You raise an interesting point. However, while I’ll admit that there is a certain contemporary experience (in addition to the historical experience I mentioned already) that, in a sense, defines African-Americans as a distinct people group, I still think the marginal cases (like Johnson’s and Plessy’s) present interesting exceptions that call the rule into question. With that said, I think, ultimately, what I can add to what I said in the original post is this: I think the idea of race is itself problematic, especially as we’ve come almost entirely to rely upon physical characteristics to define race. Better concepts, and more meaningful, are concepts like ethnicity. No doubt physical characteristics are an aspect of this — but they are part of a much bigger whole that includes heritage, culture, and experience. With this in mind, “white” and “black” are meaningless concepts. The African-American author James Baldwin once said (in the 50s, as the Civil Rights Movement was building momentum) “if you think you’re white, you’re part of the problem.” He explained that he had traveled throughout Europe and America and had seen many sorts of people — Irishmen, Englishmen, Italians, Poles, etc. — but never yet a “white” person as there simply was no binding characteristic to all of these different peoples than that they were “not black.” “White” and “black” only exist insofar as each concept provides the definition for the other through contrast and opposition. It would make much more sense to eliminate these concepts and refer instead to individual nationalities and ethnicities — of which “African-American,” as a distinct group of people with their own unique physical characteristics, culture, experience, etc. are certainly one. I think this would also explain why we generally feel okay with President Obama identifying as African-American but not Dolezal.

      I’ll add to that that I think the time is probably coming soon when most of us will simply have to identify as “American,” which is itself becoming a distinct ethnicity and culture. (What will my triracial and octoethnic children, for example, refer to themselves as? haha). I attended Mass at a Catholic church (once a much-hated group here in America as well) here in Savannah a few weeks ago. At the end of the Mass in a church filled with a pretty even mix of Hispanics and Irish with a few others sprinkled in, the last hymn sung was one that had originally been a Negro spiritual. We’ve definitely developed our own unique culture in the United States, taking bits and pieces from each group that has come here — and the same has been happening genetically for a very long time now. Even almost 80 years ago Hitler (shortly before receiving a massive whooping from us) referred to Americans dismissively as a “mongrel race.” Perhaps we should embrace that label…

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