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IS HE Or ISN’T HE: Allen Johnson Thinking Out Loud About Barack Obama Being African American

Color me exasperated
By Allen Johnson, Greensboro News & Record
This week’s column, adapted from an earlier blog post:

An irate caller phoned last week. The woman, an African American, wasn’t so sure Barack Obama can call himself the same. Or whether anyone else should, either.

An African American is someone who is descended from American slaves from Africa, she said. The president-elect does not qualify.

And she was pretty worked up about it.

Numerous letters to the editor have argued that point as well. One of the more recent letters contended that Obama arguably has a bigger claim to the term “African American” than most other Americans of color.

Other letter writers have complained that Obama hadn’t made as big a deal about his white mother as he ought to. (Actually, it was nearly impossible not to hear her compelling story, in Obama’s books, in campaign ads, in his thoughtful Philadelphia speech about race and in print and broadcast coverage of the campaign.)

Still others have disputed that Obama is the first black president. He is “bi-racial,” they say, since his mother was white and his father was Kenyan.

This bothers me a little, as if it gives some people comfort in viewing Obama in the same light as Tiger Woods — that is, as not a regular, garden-variety black person.

It gets curiouser.

Letter writer Philip van Lidth de Jeude of Carrboro argues that Obama’s white mother and Kenyan father make him “more truly an African American than most of those in this country designated with that term.

“And if the truth be known,” he added, “most of them are multi-racial, as we define the term, as there is practically no one in that ethnic group who doesn’t have some admixture of Caucasian, Native American or some other ethnic group.”

Van Lidth de Jeude has a point. In fact, some black people prefer not being called African American. But the term’s growing acceptance is rooted in the need for many more of us to reclaim roots and self-awareness that were systematically stripped during slavery.

On van Lidth de Jeude’s final point, I fully agree. All you have to do is look around to see the many hues of black folk. In the racial parlance of apartheid South Africa, many, if not most of us, would be considered “colored.”

So vexed and confused did it become about who’s what and why, Americans even at one time created a twisted brand of racial math.

Remember, Homer Plessy, in the landmark 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson Supreme Court case that upheld “separate but equal” accommodations, was only 12.5 percent black. Plessy’s great-grandmother happened to be black.

But by Louisiana law, that was enough — and made him unfit to ride in rail coaches with white passengers.

Such laws that mixed math with race caused all kinds of complications that would seem silly if they weren’t so sad: For instance, you could be considered one race in State A and another in State B.

The norm I grew up with was much simpler: If your physiology contained even the teeniest fraction of “black” blood, then you were black. Period. Whiteness was purity. Blackness was, well, anything else.

That’s why it was even possible for a “black” person to have a lighter complexion (freckles and all) than a “white” person. Some in the black community (which has its own hang-ups about color) described these folks, derisively, as “high yellow.”

And it’s why some black people actually “passed” as white in the days of segregation. I saw it firsthand during the waning days of segregation in Greensboro, when going to the movies meant using a separate lobby, refreshment stand and seating area for most black patrons. But not all.

Some of my “black” friends were so fair-skinned they could be seated on the main floor of the Carolina Theatre — while the rest of us were consigned to the balcony.

Then, of course, you could really split hairs and point out that a white immigrant from Africa could be as accurately called an African American as anyone else.

Color me exasperated.

As for the point of all this debating back and forth, I’m not sure.

Is Obama the first bi-racial president?
Is he the first black president?

Is he the first African American president?

I’d vote for all of the above.

But I won’t lose any sleep over it. As a 49-year-old white reader from Jamestown, Duncan Chapman, wrote in his letter about Obama’s race: “This should not matter either way!”

One thing is certain: No one who looks like Obama has ever before occupied the Oval Office.
Let’s just say he’s the first person of color to be president.

And call it a day. A new day.

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