It’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.
I 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.