Black (And White) Like Me: Thoughts On Obama, Race And Me In America

afroCookie_AboutPage.jpgIt’s been some time since Barack Obama was declared the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party and I meant to write something then, but well, you know. I got busy and stuff. I meant to write about how proud I was, as a mixed-race, politically active man in a heretofore white political world. I wanted to write about what a party my mother Joanne Grant would have thrown at our house and how, as a fiercely proud mixed-race woman she would have whooped and hollered. (I think she would have supported John Edwards in the beginning because he ran to the left of Obama, but when it got down to it, she would have been ecstatic.)

I meant to write about how I sat there, watching Obama’s speech early in the morning on June 4th, weeping and missing my parents. They were so politically and socially active and they would have been so happy to have lived to see that day, a day that even as recently as this past spring many thought couldn’t happen. Until very recently, even for the most enlightened and progressive among us, the idea of a black presidential nominee, a serious presidential nominee was a quixotic tale, at best.

To presume that Obama was followed around by store detectives in the Honolulu, LA and New York malls he probably frequented when he lived there would not be a stretch. Hell, I bet he got that treatment when he was a lawyer, state legislator and US senator. Of course that was only until someone recognized him. Then it was all nervous “please don’t sue us” apologies. The equivalent of the store saying “Oh! We didn’t realize you were the good kind of nigger!” There are thousands of tales of driving while…, shopping while…, jogging while… and walking while Black.

Joanne Grantsmall.jpgI know there are going to be a lot of you who say “Oh no! Our country isn’t that racist!” Oh, but it is. Just ask a Black person. Or better yet, watch Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and Elvis Mitchell’s The Black List. While people like to think this country isn’t as racist as us “liberals” (Oh, how I HATE that word) think, it is. You don’t think so? In the 219 years since the inauguration of George Washington, we’ve had 43 presidents, all but one of them white, Protestant men. The other? Oh, JFK was Catholic.

I’ve rarely been seen as or treated as a mixed-race person. In the parlance of the 60’s, I have always “passed.” Sure there was that Black man in Seattle that said, as my mother and I were walking down the street: “Hey boy! You got mighty curly hair! You got any Black in you?” I grinned and said “Yeah!,” pointing to my mom (above). Then there’s the odd person who assumes I speak Spanish because I guess Black, Native American (NOTE: I have since, through 23 & Me, learned that I have a negligible percentage Native blood), Russian Jews look Latino. I never get followed in stores and white people never make sure they still have their wallets as I walk by.

Some might think that I am lucky not to have experienced all of that, all of the racism and abuse and they’re probably right but here’s where I make a little, odd confession: Sometimes I feel cheated about not being “blacker” and a little guilty about “passing.” I grew up feeling part of more than one culture, but not feeling completely a part of any. I knew all the Civil Rights anthems, went on the right marches and looked at my mom’s old comrades from the Movement as extended family. I know “If You Miss Me At the Back of the Bus” and “Go Tell It On The Mountain” like the back of my hand and I can add verses on to “This Little Light of Mine” until the cows come home.

I am, by most measures, in the middle. I identify partially as black because of my mother and associated experiences and partially as white because of my father, relative lack of pigment and how I am treated by society at large. While I’ve never really been treated as anything but white, I’ve never fully identified with being white, either. I do get goose bumps singing those very special songs but I’ll never really be Black or white. The fact remains that I pass and there’s nothing I can do about that.

2 thoughts on “Black (And White) Like Me: Thoughts On Obama, Race And Me In America”

  1. This is a personal message to Mark Rabinowitz.

    I just discovered your article, and it touched me a lot – the picture and the reference to your mother – and how she and your father would have reacted to Obama’s election. – And sorry for my cobbled english
    I met your mother in1995, in quite a pitoresque way, an artists colony (VCCA) in Virginia, where she was working on “Freedom bound”. On my way to my studio in the morning, over the big lawn, i wistled, to get me going, the International – when I heard a womans voice behind me saying “Hey, young man, I know that song, too” and started hummig away…I thought actually it was quite an unknown tune in rural Virginia. The woman happened to be your mother.
    We than started talking all the time, being probably of some opposit origines, but being, as it might be acceptable for the European I am – bound to the left, and afraid of any resurection of any kind of fashist attitude/movement/thought… I felt very good with your mothers very bad humor. She was beautifully mean. We actually sang the international together (bilingual), watching out what would happen – nothing. Nobody knew the song. Our major problem was that we were the only smokers and had to move all the time closer to any given window. I was doing a piece there , and I asked your mother for a title, I don’t remember why. She gave me “Castro hugged me” stating that he was sexiest man she ever me, an we burried a NEW YORK Subway Token in the piece.
    Me being German, it hurt me a bit when your mother told me, that, by going to Europe, she would never consider to land in or travel trough Germany – but those are pains of her generation I do not have to judge – and – still- responsabilities of mine.
    After Virginia, your mother invited me to your house in NY where I stayed for about two or three weeks. When I arrived she wasn’t there, your father let me in, giving me a – and I quote “nice to meet etc.etc.” and walked off . He showed me into a room, I think it was actually yours, turning right from the living room, at the end of a hallway but not being part of your parents section (it was next to a bathroom). You were participating in the direction (or directing) a movie then at Uiversity.
    When I left, Joanne gave me a copy of “Black Protest” dedicatd to then my girlfriend- now wife- “To Ellen – thanks for lending Veit to me”. IIt was strange when I found the same book in my wifes schoolbooks at her parents house.n exchange I asked Ellen, who worked for Argos Films the, to send Joanne “Le tombeau d’Alexandre” on Medvedkine by Chris Marker. But It wasn’t in NTSC and I doubt she ever had it transcoded. By the way, I think, your father was deadly bored with me, this german idealist trying to change the world every evning after a bit of white wine with your mother. But I had the honor to be invited to the Hamptons – Elisabeth Saint Clair was there, too, that weekend;

    I saw your mother again regularly, when ever I could efford to come to NY. She offered “Ella Baker- freedom bound”when it was completed, dedicating it to “the good fight” – an she offered me the “Unrepentant leftist”. Afterwards, I learned that she had passed away, but I did no know what to do, I did not want to impose myself. When your father went away, I felt even stranger. – I actually think we met once in the hallway of the livingroom, but I did not wan to bother you.

    I am in NY right now for six more weeks. If you wish to get in touch with me, I would be happy. But if you would rather stay away, I would perfectly understand.

    Veit Stratmann

  2. Hey Mark,
    Yes, your mother would have been overjoyed at Obama’s legitimate, albeit unlikely candidacy- what little I knew of her. And yes, the candidate has suffered the indignity (and triumph) of being (part) Black in America- well documented in his two very readable and enjoyable memoirs. A third one is apparently pending.
    But, no, you are not passing. By virtue of having written this blog entry, you are not passing. Considering the fact that you openly admit to being black (or a least partly) and come from a long standing tradition of justice seekers and resistance advocates, you are not passing. Just because most people you encounter daily don’t see your true ethnicity does not mean you’re passing.
    Passing is a conscious decision you make for yourself because you can. But it seems to me you choose not to, otherwise why come clean here? Either way, your cover is blown now. You can no longer pass. Unless of course you want to….
    For the record, this is the first time I’ve ever commented on a blog. Call me a Luddite, but I’ve never felt compelled until now. I just wanted to clear that up.
    Thanks for sharing.

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