Wednesday, May 14, 2008

"A deeper black" (by Suzie)

          I like identity politics when it brings about changes or benefits candidates I support. But it drives me crazy when it results in discussions over who is more authentic.
          In an article for The Nation, Ta-Nehisi Coates describes “blackness as a big tent” that can cover many ways of being in this world. But some ways of being clearly delight him, as he describes Obama’s haircut, his TV habits and his handshake.
          He calls Obama “the blackest man to take the public stage ever.” Obama doesn’t need to talk about racism, just as most African Americans think little of racism or white privilege, Coates says. “This is the blackness of Barack Obama. It is an identity that asserts itself without conscious thought.”
          But this goes against what Obama has written in his memoir, in which he examines his roots and searches for his place among other African Americans. We build our identities over time, and this may be especially true of someone like Obama because of his biracial, multicultural background.
         Coates asserts that it’s “a deeper black” to be confident, to think of blackness as a “garland,” rather than an “albatross.” Although he credits a new generation, his ideas echo the racial pride of the black power movement.
         Coates’ assertion strikes me as a false dichotomy, however. A person can be proud of being black while still fighting racism.
         Just to be clear: I’m criticizing Coates, not Obama.
         In the same article, I think Coates also misreads Frederick Douglass. Coates says Douglass “throttled his slave breaker [and] fled to the North.” Frederick did grab one of his masters, but he would later escape from another. Anna Murray, an older and free black woman whom he later married, helped him escape. I think it's important that she not disappear from his history. I’ve read that she borrowed money to help him, but another account says:
“Anna sold many of her belongings to help Frederick purchase the train tickets for his escape. She also sewed the sailor uniform he wore as a disguise and accumulated the necessary items for starting a household.”
          Coates says, “Douglass was vilified in his time.” Of course, pro-slavery people hated him, but he also was a popular speaker whose autobiography became a bestseller. While he spent much of his time traveling, his wife ran the household and aided the Underground Railroad.
Those interested in this history should visit the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in D.C. Its Web site also has much historical information.