In the questions raised about Barack Obama’s blackness or his appeal to various segments of the electorate, I see a reflection of my own experience as a young black woman that was born and raised in a predominantly white college town suburb in upstate Western New York that later converted to Islam. I have faced and continue to encounter questions from various sources about what others perceive as my blackness, my Iboness my acting whiteness, my Muslimness.
Criticism of race is mostly subjective and prone to stereotypes, which negate the individuality of life experience and personal choices. Barack Obama is biracial, yet is seen by most people as a black man, and he himself identifies as black. His family background has traces of Muslim, Christian, and secular atheist beliefs yet he sees himself as a Christian and belonged to black church until it became politically unpalatable for his political ambition and aspirations.
In the children of the African immigrants that I grew up with and continue to be surrounded by, I saw three distinct patterns. Those who try to assimilate wholly into white culture and aspire to become honorary whites through imitation and a rejection of their background, those that try to assimilate wholly into black culture and aspire to become honorary blacks through imitation and a rejection of their background, and those that try to merge the disparate influences by trying to take the best of their experience and leaving off the worst.
I like to read, reading was always emphasized in my family, from books to newspapers to whatever, the process of reading, comprehending, and writing well formed a pivotal part of my upbringing. I was sometimes criticized by black students bussed in from a nearby city at school about my reading habits and my speech pattern, and my taking of Advanced Placement classes. I can remember the exclamations and surprised looks by more than one teacher when they realized that I read, that I had read many of the books they had read or were currently reading and could converse fluently with them about those books. On the phone, people sometimes think I am white until they hear my name and then they get confused.
I also love some of the speech patterns, mannerisms, and slang of the black city kids I grew up with and from listening to hip-hop back in the day, and the pidgin English spoken by Africans so I incorporated some of that into my speech, sometimes deliberately but mostly unconsciously. I could never stand the word “ask” mispronounced. And of course, the politics of who and what determines “correct” and “incorrect” speech is another discussion.
In the last five years or so, I started to enjoy talking and listening to older black folks, I learn so much from them about life and history and people and race. And working at Baltimore’s Thurgood Marshall airport, the blacks I met there many of them from Baltimore were an extraordinary group, I learned a lot from them as well and have a tremendous sense of respect for them. I don’t know if it is something particular to Baltimore or because it is a little further down south than New York but the blacks I met there were culturally not like the blacks I met in Rochester. It’s not that I thought there was some mythical singular black American culture as I am proof of that myself but the differences were startling and made me rethink a lot of issues.
In my younger days, mostly in middle school, I wanted to be seen as tough, not exactly a thug, just tough enough so no one even tried to mess with me (the movie Mi Vida Loca was one of my favorites), I wore the clothes and talked the talk with more authenticity then the white students, some of whom were afraid of me and all blacks by default until they got to know me. I never felt the need to lock the doors of the car while still driving as soon as we crossed into the city like some of my white and Asian friends did and I don’t clutch my bag tighter or cross over to the other side of the street when I see a group of black or latino guys hanging out on the sidewalk.
I like the idea of organic food. I grew up eating traditional Ibo dishes and typical American fare and disliked making Ibo food because it took so long and the ingredients had to be imported from Nigeria, or purchased at a local African store, or fresh from a farm or a farmers’ market. I remember well the live goats or chickens bought alive from the farm only to be slaughtered in the backyards of my family and Ibo family friends. I now appreciate how fresh that food made almost entirely from scratch was compared to the highly processed foods so readily available in grocery stores and restaurants. I buy organic food as much as I can and have had black coworkers look at me weird because they think that is “a little too white” as if I have to like Popeyes chicken and collard greens (which, I don’t and never have) in order to be more fully black.
I like the outdoors, going on hikes on nature trails, walking by a lake, riding my bike, watching a lunar eclipse, taking care of my bonsai and other house plants, fresh flowers, can’t stand plastic or fake plants, and would prefer to enjoy the scenic beauty of Allah’s creation to almost any other form of outdoor recreation, although I like playing sports, too. Last year, when I went to Washington state, which has extraordinarily beautiful places, I tried to explain my joy for nature to some of my family and coworkers and some of them got it but a number of them teased me, did the imaginary flip of the hair, questioned whether I had any black friends, or brushed it off as something they did not have time for or as being a “white thing”.
I was talking about books to one of my former housemates and somehow we got on the topic of The Color Purple, both of us are black and neither one of us had read the book or seen the movie, although I had seen enough snippets of it to know that Oprah was in it. Both of us had been criticized or mocked for not reading or seeing it as in “you’re not black unless or until”, as if The Color Purple is a seminal work necessary for membership in the black American community.
So finally this year, I gave in and ordered the film on Netflix (another white thing) and forced myself to watch it. The story is awful (in the archaic sense), awful things happen, rape, incest, infidelity, racism, wife beating, although it has its good points, love, humor, history, the post-slavery black experience, jazz, strong familial bonds, redemption, a little back-to-Africaness, but certainly if you miss reading the book or seeing the movie you can most assuredly still be considered black by me. I give the film four stars and will probably read the book by Alice Walker. However, I think anyone interested in the black experience would do better to read The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B DuBois, it’s nonfiction and touches on many of the themes mentioned in The Color Purple in a much more objective and methodical way.
To be continued in sha Allah…Muslimness and why I’d vote for Obama
From the Storehouse: