Two Sides to the Same Racial Rhetoric

There’s a lot of noise that’s been made this week about comments made about Barack Obama, by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid over a year ago, and by former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich. To my mind, they are just two sides of the same coin.

Reid, it is reported in a book, referred to Obama as a “light-skinned” African-American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” It’s in the same category as Joe Biden’s 2008 description of Obama as “clean and articulate.” Whereas Blagojevich suggests that he is blacker than Obama in a recent interview.

What Reid (and Biden) were saying is is that they were comfortable with Obama because he is more like them than other black people they have known. They are more comfortable with someone like that. I think they were speaking the truth, but the truth is not politically comfortable. And I dare say that much of the United States felt the same way; Obama was not a “scary black man” who sounds like – heaven help us! – Jesse Jackson, so we can vote for him and pat ourselves on the back about just how enlightened and “colorblind” we are.

Blago was questioning the AUTHENTICITY of Obama’s blackness, that there is a checklist of things that makes a “real” black man, from the way he talks to the beliefs he has. Hey, Obama plays basketball and likes jazz; shouldn’t that count for something?

It was the Blago remarks that affected me more personally. There seemed to be this notion, at least when I was growing up, that certain features signified a real blackness. My father used to make a point of my sisters and me speaking “traditional” American English, not some sort of Ebonics. This worked well in surviving growing up in my predominantly white, Slavic neighborhood. It wasn’t as successful in dealing with some of the black kids who would mock my bookish ways and my “white” way of talking. Heck, some of the white kids that hung out with the black kids would suggest that they were “blacker” than I was, because they talked “ghetto”; some of them would put their tanned arms next to mine to check THAT aspect as well.

I mean, I listened to Motown and Atlantic, but I was fans of the Beatles and folk music and classic music. There seemed to be these rules that “authentic” black people could only like certain kinds of of music. That lineage of blues, r&b, soul to hip hop and rap were OK. Classical was not. Neither was rock, which made NO sense to me, since rock and roll evolved from blues and R&B. The artists that performed the outre music like Dionne Warwick (pop), Charley Pride (country) and Jimi Hendrix (rock) weren’t considered “black enough” by some folks, and this really ticked me off.

There was this Red Cross training event at Manlius, NY near Syracuse. I went as my high school’s representative. On the penultimate evening, there was a talent show. I got on stage with a pick-up band, and everyone thought I was going to sing. Instead, I got out a comb and a piece of paper and played a couple minutes of blues riffs. I got a standing ovation; it was one of my favorite moments in my life. The next day, everyone was signing photos and booklets. This one young woman signed my booklet,m on the back, “You’re a nice guy, but you’re no soul brother.” You could have taken a baseball bat and hit me in the solar plexus, then hit me again, and again, and I doubt it would have hurt as much as that one sentence did. I probably looked at that piece of paper periodically for the next couple years, and if it has left my possession, it’s because I lost it, not thrown it away. The ultimate lesson, I suppose, was that I couldn’t worry myself with being “black enough”.

My (condescending, black) godmother died about a decade ago. A year or two before that, I saw her for the first time in many years at the (black) church in which I grew up. She asked me what church I was going to in Albany, and I told her. “That’s a WHITE church, isn’t it? ” I said, “predominately.” There was a point when her disapproval could, and did, really wound me, but not by thast point, fortunately.

There seems to be these periodic calls for “racial dialogue in America”. Yet the Reid comment, which seems to me like a pretty good opportunity, was was largely quashed with an apology and “let’s move on.” I found it particularly interesting to hear conservatives like Lynn Cheney trying to make the most hay about this, and me ending up largely agreeing with George Will. Premise: almost certainly, the color of his skin and the way he speaks made some people more comfortable with Obama. Discuss.

That said, I’ve become increasingly convinced that what’s made Obama “not scary” has also made him possibly less effective as President. I’ve heard those on the left say he should be cracking heads to get the Democrats in line on health care, and those on the right say he should be taking names over the Christmas near-airline disaster. I think it’s not affectation but self-training that has made Obama preturnaturally calm. He HAS the office; maybe it’s time, if he can, to get just a little bit scarier.

ROG

MOVIE REVIEW: The Princess and the Frog


On New Years Day, the daughter and I walk over to the Madison Theatre in Albany to see the new Disney movie, The Princess and the Frog. The movie had engendered a lot of buzz long before it was released because it would be the first black “Disney princess”.

I have to say that the marketing of the “princess” concept is as clever as it is annoying. It is a way to keep the old-line characters (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella) visible and up-to-date, and create a “lineage” that includes Beauty (of…and the Beast), Jasmine from Aladdin and the title characters from Pocohontas and Mulan. I should also note that the popcorn at the Madison is not only inferior to that at the Spectrum, but it costs more.

After at least six trailers, at least half of them sequels (or “squeakquel”, in one case), the movie finally started. In was hoping that as a G-rated movie, she would enjoy it.

The lead role of Tiana, a hardworking waitress who grew up in a working-class family, and is trying to follow her dream of owning her own restaurant in 1920s New Orleans, is played by Anika Noni Rose, who I recall from Dreamgirls (2006). While her childhood pal Charlotte is hot to get to meet the debonair, but lazy Prince Naveen, Tiana is only interested in her dream, until…the kiss from a talking frog.

I liked the film visually. The sequence early on where Tiana dreams of her own place is particularly vivid, and the songs are strong. My favorite may be Almost There; indeed, the brief reprise made me almost cry. I also loved Evangeline, sung by Ray the bug.

The great conversation was whether Disney, who has been rightfully charged with occasional racial stereotyping, could pull off a story without falling into the same trap again. I think it was pretty successful in this regard. The race/culture of the Prince was intentionally vague, and that was a smart, if safe, course.

There were people who noted the voodoo roots of the sinister black character Dr. Facilier – but hey, this IS Louisiana – and I think it’s countered by the mysterious Mama Odie. And I really believe there are those who are just loaded for bear trying to FIND a flaw. One suggested that the songs should have been done by black composers such as the Neville Brothers, rather than the award-winning, hard-working movie musician Randy Newman; such nonsense. Here’s a promo by Ms. Rose, as well as a link to all the songs. I was particularly gratified by this positive review in Racialicious.

Bottom line, I enjoyed it, I’m afraid far more than the daughter, who was frightened some by Facilier and more by his “friends on the other side”. She also was bothered by amphibians in peril, though she now denies it.

Unfortunate also is the film’s “disappointing box office” of $86 million. With ticket sales up generally, why did this film, released November 25, 2009 do about half as well as Alvin 2, released on December 23? Was it marketing? was there resistance by the audience? I don’t know, but5 I hope this movie finds its audience.
ROG

Finding Freedom in Postwar Europe

Less then a month before my father, Les Green, died in August 2000, he started talking about his childhood. It seems that his grandmother had a boarding house. He advised that there was a father and child there and that they only ate if they had something to put in the pot. He advised that he always had food and never went hungry. He said that when he was in Belgium, serving post-World War II, he was at a woman’s home who reminded him of the days with his grandmother and always ate well there.

After he died, of course we went through his materials. One of the things he held onto was an article from a September 16, 1946 issue of Newsweek, Racial: Maedchen and Negro, about black soldiers in post-WW II Germany. The Newsweek piece was initiated by a much longer piece in the October 1946 Ebony.

The thrust, particularly of the Ebony piece, was that the black soldier felt freer in Berlin, capital of the formerly Nazi nation, than he did in Birmingham or on Broadway.

A July 2009 article in Stars & Stripes confirms this: “In the words of retired Gen. Colin Powell, postwar Germany was ‘a breath of freedom’ for black soldiers, especially those out of the South: ‘[They could] go where they wanted, eat where they wanted, and date, whom they wanted, just like other people.'”

There is a great website, the Civil Rights Struggle, African-American GIs and Germany, which contains some original research on this topic. The NAACP presented its Julius E. Williams Distinguished Community Service Award for 2009 to Maria Höhn (Vassar College) and Martin Klimke (German Historical Institute, Washington, DC / Heidelberg Center for American Studies, University of Heidelberg) for the project.

But, of course, this doesn’t address why my father held onto that article for 54 years. Was he merely interested in the topic? Did he know someone who was pictured? Was HE one of the people in the pictures? There is a guy who remind my sisters and me of my dad. While my father said he was in Belgium, his records show that he was in the European theater from February to November 1946, so perhaps he was in Germany as well. Ms. Höhn, who I have e-mailed, confirms that there were black soldiers in both countries.

I may never know why Leslie H. “Bing” Green held onto that article for so many years.

ROG

Q is for Questionable Content

In the comments to a blogpost back in September, Andrew Bechard suggested that I write more about race. He had all sorts of good reasons and particular examples. Here’s the thing: I find conversations about race exhausting. It’s not that I think they aren’t important and necessary, or that I don’t engage in the topic occasionally. It’s merely that talking about race often becomes either incendiary (So-and-so is playing “the race card”, whatever that means) or trivialized (the purported “beer summit”) or dismissive (“Race is just a social construct, so if we just stop talking about race, racism will just go away.”)


But Andrew did ask one specific question that I WILL (finally) answer, and without ever using the word in question. “I, for one, am very curious to hear your views on why you won’t use the ‘N word’ when I regularly overhear other black folks using it around Albany.”

OK, here’s the short answer: I don’t like the word, so I don’t use it.

Here’s the slightly longer answer: I think it is hugely a matter of age. People, both black and white, of my generation, born in the 1950s, or earlier, were taught quite clearly that it was not appropriate word for right-minded person to use, certainly to use casually in the manner to which Andrew refers. That’s why when Bill Cosby received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor recently, he requested no profanity or the casual use of the N-word; he didn’t like it. The NAACP held a funeral for the N-word at its annual conference in the summer of 2007. The use of the phrase by Bethlehem Police Chief Louis Corsi – the town of Bethlehem ins in Albany County, NY – got in him into understandable trouble.

For me, part of my antipathy towards the word comes from the circumstances in which I have been called the N-word. It was almost never face-to-face but rather by person or persons in a moving automobile or truck while I was walking or riding my bicycle. this includes more than a few times in Albany, though, to be fair, not in this century, to the best of my recollection.

Now there’s a whole school of thought that if one claims a word, it loses its power. That seems to be the philosophy, not only for some blacks, but women and gays as well. That’s fine for them, but it doesn’t mean that I’ll start using the words. I know people of Polish extraction who use a term considered a slur in talking about themselves, but I’ve never considered it an invitation for me to use it.

I recall quite distinctly that about 15 years ago, I was in my previous church, when one or two black kids were using the N-word in the church hallway. I said, “Don’t use that word here.” At which point, the (white) pastor came on the scene. One of the young men started to argue with me. And I said, in my best stern voice, “Don’t use that word in HERE,” and they relented. The pastor, who is about a decade older than I, was on the same page in this case.

There is a book out there by Professor Randall Kennedy, with the N-word as the title. The subtitle is The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word and that sounds about right. That book and its author, incidentally, were not without controversy.

That said, I would oppose the banning of a book such as Huckleberry Finn merely because it uses the N-word. (I’m really curious what Bill Cosby, who got the Twain award, thinks of this Twain book.) The Irish Repertory Theatre, an Off-Broadway troupe, is putting on an uncensored production of The Emperor Jones, a 1920 one-act play by Eugene O’Neill, with the N-word “flung around with alarming abandon”; I can see the value in doing the production as written.

I’ve also found any number of songs in my record collection that use the word. Thing is, it seemed to be making a point, rather than be a casual comment. Examples include:
Don’t Call Me N*****, Whitety – Sly and the Family
If There’s A hell Below, we’re all gonna Go – Curtis Mayfield
Woman Is the N***** of the World – John Lennon
Living For the City (album version) – Stevie Wonder

When I saw Elvis Costello sing Oliver’s Army last year, I swear he swallowed the N-word in favor of “one more white nah-gah”.

So, Andrew: I don’t use the N-word because…I just don’t.
ROG

Half Breed

I have developed a premise about some of those folks who instinctively dislike and especially distrust Barack Obama; while some of it may be because he’s black, I think there are just as many who react that way because he is of mixed race. Allow me to explain.

That bayou yahoo who refused to give a marriage license to a mixed race couple – doesn’t he know about Loving vs. Virginia? – was probably seen as an aberrant reactionary; well, maybe.

When people say that someone is “half” something, that “something” is generally something other than white, e.g., “she is half Chinese”, with the white assumed. (Read this Racialicious article to see why the whole fractionalization nomenclature is problematic.)

In fact, the only person I’ve EVER heard described as “half-white” by a white person is Barack Obama. Usually the context is this: “Why does he identify himself as black when he’s half-white?”

Well, that’s the great thing about the United States now, though not always in the past, is that people generally decide how they are identified. What the Census has allowed as of the last decennial count is that people can choose if they consider themselves as of one race or two races or multiple races. It’s THEIR choice. Michelle Obama gets to identify as black even with her mixed heritage. Henry Louis Gates Jr gets to identify as black, even though his DNA test revealed in a PBS documentary that he was as much of European stock as African.

But when Barack Obama identifies as black when he had a white mother: is this seen as some sort of “rejection of his whiteness”? Thus the Glenn Becks of the world can say, apparently without irony, that the President “hates white people” and have some coterie of folks actually believe it.

I’ve not been talking policy disagreements here, so if you think that the enmity is totally based on deficits, health care. et al., that’s fine. I’m just not convinced.
***
The title comes from the sometimes-angry Indian/white “half breed” named Quint on Gunsmoke, played by Burt Reynolds in 1962-66, who had difficulty fitting in with either culture.
Or maybe some song by Cher.

ROG