Tiffany B. Brown

08 January 2009

Thoughts on Barack Obama and Choosing Blackness

I use "black" and refer to blackness and black culture in a variety of ways in this post. In some contexts, I mean "descended from Africans and living in the United States." In others I mean "descended from Africans enslaved in the United States." I tried to be clear, but sometimes that just isn't enough. I trust that y'all did well in reading comprehension in school and can figure out which meaning I'm using based on its context.

I voted for Obama. I celebrated his victory and I might just take the day off (or at least work from home) on Inauguration Day. But it took me a while to become comfortable with his campaign, in part because of the reasons Debra Dickerson articulated nearly a year ago.

I can't and won't revoke his membership in the American Society of Black Folks, of course. But I do think his heritage that is both black immigrant and Midwestern white gives him a perspective on life and on blackness that most black Americans — that is, those of us descended from Africans enslaved in the United states — don't necessarily enjoy.

Barack Obama is "Black by Choice." He is the son of a Kenyan father and a white American mother, which makes him racially black, though not culturally so. He was also raised by white folks from Kansas with stints in Indonesia and Hawaii. Have you checked the percentage of black Americans in Hawaii lately? That black Americans are almost non-existent in Indonesia doesn't need to be stated.

Now Obeezy could easily have cultivated a distinctly bi-racial identity as so many bi-racial and bi-cultural children do. He easily could have cultivated an incidentally or accidentally black identity because of the demographics of the cities in which he was raised.

And yet, he chose to return to his African first name rather than be known as the far less foreign, far more familiar-sounding "Barry." He chose to work as a community organizer on Chicago's south side. He chose to attend a predominantly black church with a sort of crazy preacher. And he chose to marry a black woman from the south side of Chicago no less.

Because it was a matter of choice and not upbringing, Obama also had the freedom to choose which portions of black identity he wanted to claim. If I had to guess, I would say being black in mostly-white environment lead to some cognitive dissonance that allowed him to adopt some portions of a black American cultural identity (collectivism, social justice, and bou(r)gie Negro code-speak, for example) while eschewing the negative stereotypes of blackness.

And by crafting his own black identity and becoming president of the United States, perhaps Obama has — as so many other black immigrants and bi-racial blacks have — expanded our collective conceptions of what black is.

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