To Be Black, And Also A "Mutt"

Princeton Professor Cornel West thinks that Obama is afraid of free black men:

“I think my dear brother Barack Obama has a certain fear of free black men,” West says. “It’s understandable. As a young brother who grows up in a white context, brilliant African father, he’s always had to fear being a white man with black skin. All he has known culturally is white. He is just as human as I am, but that is his cultural formation. When he meets an independent black brother, it is frightening. And that’s true for a white brother. When you get a white brother who meets a free, independent black man, they got to be mature to really embrace fully what the brother is saying to them. It’s a tension, given the history. It can be overcome. Obama, coming out of Kansas influence, white, loving grandparents, coming out of Hawaii and Indonesia, when he meets these independent black folk who have a history of slavery, Jim Crow, Jane Crow and so on, he is very apprehensive. He has a certain rootlessness, a deracination. It is understandable.

“He feels most comfortable with upper middle-class white and Jewish men who consider themselves very smart, very savvy and very effective in getting what they want,” he says. “He’s got two homes. He has got his family and whatever challenges go on there, and this other home. Larry Summers blows his mind because he’s so smart. He’s got Establishment connections. He’s embracing me. It is this smartness, this truncated brilliance, that titillates and stimulates brother Barack and makes him feel at home. That is very sad for me.

Let's be clear about where this is coming from -- West complains that Obama didn't give him and his family tickets to the inauguration and was unresponsive to his phone calls. West reveals these details in the midst of a larger critique of the president's liberal bona fides, but his real problem seems altogether personal.

West speaks in the language of common humanity, but his verbal assumptions undermine the charade. “He feels most comfortable with upper middle-class white and Jewish men who consider themselves very smart, very savvy and very effective in getting what they want,” West says, as though interracial intimacy, finding oneself "at home" with a "them" were, by definition, a form of self-hatred. My mother faced such accusations, having married my father in the late 1960s. Time has a way of excusing ignorance, but at least insults hurled in the street do not make any pretense to intellectual respectability. West believes what he is saying is profound. It is petty. 

In response to perceived social slights, West severs Obama from any individual claim to blackness while inviting him to accept the terms of an implicit contract by which his lost negritude might be restored. For mixed people, blackness is not accepted as a fact of existence but something negotiable, a question of membership to which those whom are Truly Black may grant you access. This gives the game away of course, the reality of race as an invention, if one we have no choice but to live with. 

Growing up mixed you sometimes face a kind of confusion. Those around you press you to make a choice about how much of yourself you're willing to give up, how much you're are willing to pretend in order to claim membership in one club or another. West demands to know why Obama isn't sitting at the black table in the dining hall, while reminding him that he's only welcome there by his graces. What you eventually learn is that peace is not something the "gatekeepers" have to offer and is the last thing they want you to find. Eventually you learn the rules of the game are silly and destructive, and who you are can't be negotiated either way.   

To some degree this is just a part of adolescence, but most people have grown out of this kind of racial pageantry by middle age. West has not, but perhaps worse, he assumes the president has not. Perhaps he did not read the president's autobiography, or he would have realized that Obama is not a lost little mulatto child who is willing to give West something in exchange for that which is not West's to trade. Obama's struggle to find peace with himself is essentially the opposite of "deracination," a term that takes on all the force of an epithet here. Obama is lambasted as a Kenyan anti-colonialist by the likes of Newt Gingrich, and as a wide-eyed surrogate of "upper middle class white and Jewish men" by the likes of West. To have one group of morons question your citizenship while others question your blackness. To have one's very being interrogated by those who, because of their own pathologies, see your difference as a kind of terrible mistake, an anomaly to be soothed with toxic balm of archaic social binaries, this is what it means to be black, and also a mutt

President Obama has a "fear of free black men," says the celebrity professor from Princeton by way of Harvard, explaining why the president feels "at home" among people who are not black. This remark made me wonder: Which of these men do you think, is actually free, and which afraid of who he truly is?

You may also like