Speak Your Mind

Defining Blackness


It's time again for our recurring series, "Speak Your Mind," where we invite our listeners to weigh in on the issues and news that matter most to them.

This entry comes from "News & Views" reader and frequent commenter Moji Oderinde of Oakland Park, Fla.

Courtesy Moji Oderinde

"I watched the CNN /YouTube debate. I must admit it was nice to see a different format with individuals in the comfort of their surroundings posing questions to the Democratic presidential candidates. But with any new thing, the novelty soon fades, and that was how I felt when I heard the couple of questions from an individual posed to Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

The questions were how Clinton would answer those doubters who feel her gender makes her unqualified for the presidency; and to Obama, what he would say to those who think he is not black enough. "Not again," I said to myself. I wasn't surprised about the gender question, and it will keep on being asked until America finds the courage within herself to vote for a woman as the president. But isn't it strange we convey a country as a female possession but have a hard time seeing a female at the helm of the land's highest honor? It is just a thought, but I digress.

The second question about the sufficiency of Obama's blackness was what got me riled even into the next day, when my aunt asked for my opinion on the debate. I told her I was really glad that holding a public office is not my lot or desire in life because I wouldn't have to show how "black enough" I am by defending the fact that I am born to African parents or have lived in other parts of the world as a kid — because Obama is just like me.

This question is sounding like a broken record. Various many media outlets have featured commentaries about his so-called "blackness" — or lack thereof — during the past five months. I was impressed that he answered the question with a sense of humor, while expressing his belief in the "core decency of the American people." However, I have to say that Obama's answer was also good "politician speak." He avoided the issue because just like the many others who have asked this question in the past, the poser of that question on YouTube was African American.

Finding the answer to this peculiar question is an exasperating process because we (as blacks) have no concrete response to defining the ambiguous term called "blackness." After all, we were the ones who dubbed Bill Clinton "the first black president," making him one of "us." On the other hand, we have a black Supreme Court judge in Clarence Thomas, who denies that affirmative action had anything to do with his own success. So through his perception of being a self-made man, Thomas keeps making court rulings that make you wonder if he ever was one of "us." Not only that, we have whites who think they are black for wearing cornrows as hairstyles or black designer threads!

Imagine my surprise reading an article last week regarding a documentary by Paul McKenzie titled "Black like Beckham." You have got to be kidding me. If David Beckham is black, then I'm the soccer messiah. But we give the real brother (Obama) a hard time about his blackness for reasons that are beyond me: his mixed heritage, world travels and Ivy League education. Isn't this the same brother who took civil rights cases as a lawyer and made an uncommon decision to not support the Iraq war while his counterparts did? If you ask me, those actions give credence to the content of his character; and in my eyes that makes him black enough." — Moji Oderinde

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I totally agree with Moji. It's tragic that people put Obama in the position of having to prove his "blackness." If I were him, I would turn the question around and demand the interviewer define the parameters of "being black." But then he would come off as being aggressive and threatening. What's interesting to me is this excerpt of Morrison's article referenced above: "[Bill Clinton] is Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children's lifetime." That was nothing if not prescient.

Sent by Danny Taylor | 3:36 PM | 7-31-2007

that was a spot on analysis.

Sent by Chichi | 8:22 AM | 8-2-2007


You're right about Obama not turning the question around to demand the parameters of being black, then he might have come across as "the angry black man," which would have put him in a no-win situation.

And to Chichi:


Sent by Moji | 12:28 PM | 8-2-2007

I am not one to parse words but...well yes I am. I certainly agree that one's blackness is generally self evident and I would not put myself in the camp of those who believe that there should be some sort of inspectorate which determines gradations in black as some kind of litmus test for any purpose. I mean really, haven't we had have enough of irrelevant high stakes testing ?

Call me old school but I believe that Brother Obama's prominence and his unique background raise some deeper questions about the changing nature of what it means to be a Black American.

When defining Black, its important to take into account that we are in a different time than say, the 1950's and 1960s and we need to adjust our paradigm.

Back then saying Black (or more appropo to the times "negro") would basically mean an American born person whose pregenitors were black Africans formerly enslaved in America (mostly the US). Although others were here, like black Latins and West Indians, that is generally what was meant.

The world we live in now is such that that simple definition is no longer big enough. The terms negro/black/African American are much wider, much more inclusive in scope vis a vis socio political inclusiveness, than ever before. To put it bluntly, more and more Blacks world-wide are "coming to America" in search of a better life.
When they get here they will be or will become black Americans.

My working theory is that there is a difference in perspective on what it means to be a Black American between those who can be viewed as part of a line of involuntary immigrants, and those who come from a line of voluntary immigrants.

The voluntary group can trace their ancestors' immigration to America as part of a willingly undertaken search for a better life. Many of these blacks (racially speaking)can identify, can claim, and can visit a place outside the U.S. they can call 'back home'

Those of us who trace our ancestral arrival in the U.S. to the slave trade are rarely able to identify 'back home' with any real certainty. We certainly can't share in the wonder of our grandparents or great grandparents leaving 'home' to come to America with hopes for a better life. We can't proudly point to the trip our forefathers and foremothers made to this country as one they made seeking freedom, fortune or opportunity.

That doesn't mean that we don't enjoy the wonder of America's promise when fulfilled. Nor can we be fairly accused of simply "hatin' on" other immigrants.

The fact of the matter is that as time goes by we, as the decendants of uniquely involuntary immigrants, have got to figure out a way to peacefully reconcile, from within, the violent, inglorious and oftimes dehumanizing paths generations of our families have negotiated to get where we are today in 21st century America. The ironic, bittersweet reality is that this America, our America, is the only 'back home' many of us will ever really know.

That being the case, its no wonder that some of us demand so ardently that the legitimacy of the life affirming values inherent in our hard fought struggle for recognition, respect and justice be acknowledged. It is part of who we are, part of how we define ourselves and a unique part of what we bring to the American 'immigrant' experience.

Sent by James | 1:27 AM | 8-7-2007

"The fact of the matter is that as time goes by we, as the decendants of uniquely involuntary immigrants, have got to figure out a way to peacefully reconcile, from within, the violent, inglorious and oftimes dehumanizing paths generations of our families have negotiated to get where we are today in 21st century America. The ironic, bittersweet reality is that this America, our America, is the only 'back home' many of us will ever really know."


I'm trying to wrap my head around the aforementioned statement you wrote. So please oblige me: you mentioned the "descendents of involuntary immigrants," I and a couple of generations ahead of me will never understand the horror of slavery. However, I have read that life after the "involuntary immigrants" left their native land during the slave trade didn't turn out peachy for those that were left behind. Many African countries were under the British colony. South Africa experienced apatheid. Even my parents' country didn't receive her independence till 1960 - that wasn't long ago, not to talk of hundreds of thousands who died in a civil war in their own country. So I really don't understand your implication that other blacks from other countries (specifically Africa) will not empathize with what African-Americans have been through to make the 21st century America of today.

The second part of the statement was saying "America is the only "back home" many of us will ever really know." I beg to differ. Home is where the heart is. Sometimes we choose where our homes are regardless of our birthplaces.

Sent by Moji | 5:39 PM | 8-7-2007

I will be more than happy to oblige you as I am open to help in developing this working theory. Thanks for your interest and your help.
I think you may have misread me, or maybe I was inartful in my own prose. If you read that I intended to imply that voluntary immigrants have a lack of empathy or that things were peachy keen in some idylic Africa from which our forebearers were snatched; I intended no such implication. I certainly was not trying to discount anyone's 17th, 18th 19th, 20th or 21st century experience with colonialism, its remanents or whatever subsequent travails might be or might have been out there for folks to deal with. I think our struggles can and should unite us, not the other way around. I'm not into comparing scars (remember the scene in the movie JAWS?) No. I am not a student of the school of comparative deprivation.

I was using our struggle here and the journey our displaced forebearers made from slavery to relative freedom, as a metaphor for our own emigration, if you will into today's world.

The beauty in your last sentence though says volumes; and it supports my point about the difference in perspective. I agree that going forward we have the power to make our choices as to the future. In fact, there are means through which we can to some measure, if we choose, even recreate (or less gently, fabricate) the past.
You wrote: "Home is where the heart is. Sometimes we choose where our homes are regardless of our birthplaces."
Voluntary immigrants had a chance to make that choice. While life has taught us that indeed home is where the heart is, it is a beautiful thing to have, or to have had, the ability to choose where in fact the heart might be found. That is a choice the involuntary immigrants didn't have.

Sent by James | 10:50 PM | 8-7-2007

WHY is NPR reluctant to expose valid issues related to deeper space science. WHY is most topics restricted to non-space and science
matters. THE Barbara Morgan topic on
NEWS and NOTES is the only science
and space discussion that NPR can put forth, when new areas of deeper space science is not being exposed, is shameful in mass media.
What will it take for NPR to speak on deeper space science.

Sent by jerry a. Myers | 8:59 PM | 8-22-2007

good point Myers. I agree.

i have to say that it bothers me too that certain candidates are asked very mundane questions compared to their counterparts.

it sucks to hear them get asked the same question.

Sent by Dan Tres Omi | 12:25 PM | 9-3-2007

I too am disappointed to hear questions about "being black enough" in a presidential debate.

Such questions say a lot about the person posing the question, suggesting narrow views on the culture and the potential of blacks in America. Many of us are intelligent enough to know that being consanguineous doest not imply we must share the same tastes, interests, economic backgrounds, religion, or desires.

Indeed, I wish that Mr. Obama found a way to turn the question back on the questioner without sounding pugnacious. I would have loved to hear our deeply concerned African American friend give his definition of blackness.

I have to voice my decent on some of the other points.

First, isn't the term "real brother" as nebulous as blackness? I am not certain how someone would define "real brother" without falling into the same traps as trying to define blackness.

I never thought of Clinton as the first black president, nor was I a party to "we" that dubbed him as so. I don't know personally, one African American who has made this statement. What I recall is a few African Americans making this comment and having their opinions magnified by the media. I, for one, seldom feel the African Americans presented in the mainstream media are a reflection of my concerns.

Furthermore, the word "we" suggests a monolithic collection, ignoring truly dynamic and expansive gamut of African American backgrounds, beliefs and opinions. I am not sure which opinions one must hold to be considered one of "us."

I am not a scholar on the life or Clarence Thomas and will not say if he was a beneficiary of Affirmative Action or not. I think too many are quick to say, or assume, that simply because someone of his generation is "accomplished," the must have had some help in the form of Affirmative Action. This is not true and would be considered offensive if offered as a critique of African American success. There many ways that African Americans have risen without Affirmative Action.

I am African American and would favor replacing Affirmative Action with a system based on socio-economic status. Does that mean I am not a real brother?

"Not only that, we have whites who think they are black for wearing cornrows as hairstyles or black designer threads!"

By that logic, does a black woman who straightens her hair think she is white? Do African Americans who practice religions other that than traditional African religions consider themselves white? How about speaking other languages or wearing clothing by European designers? What about blacks who play traditionally white sports? We could go on.

Superficial choices like hairstyle are not enough to indict someone as identifying with a particular race. In fact, I feel this line of thought can take us down a nefarious road.

In closing, I don't choose a candidate to support based upon race/appearance. I find a candidate's positions on topics which concern me to be more important than sharing my skin tone. I like Mr. Obama and hope he continues to focus on the big picture and does not let his campaign become a forum for debates on blackness.

Sent by RM | 9:15 AM | 9-11-2007


First let me say, as the "deeply concerned African-American friend," the name might appear masculine but I'm not a man. So if the adjoining picture doesn't speak for itself; just know the "his" possessive pronoun doesn't apply.

Second, to give a commentary in the range of 500 words leaves no room to give a scholastic view of blackness. So sorry to disappoint but you could read great journal reports or books from famed Professors like Michael Eric Dyson or Cornel West who have delved into such topic with brilliance.

Third, Nobel-laureate Toni Morrison coined Bill Clinton as the first black President and the term took off from there. And about Obama being a "real brother," isn't "brother" or "sister" the term African-Americans or people of African-descent refer to each other? Now I understand your philosophical view point about the ambiguity of the "real brother" term to some but based on the article, I compared a couple of individuals like David Beckham and Bill Clinton who are accepted as "black" to Obama not being "black enough." I believe with the three aforementioned individuals, the naked eye could pick out "the real brother" out of them all.

Finally, I wholeheartedly agree with you on your very last paragraph; which was the very essence of what the commentary was all about.

Sent by Moji | 12:46 PM | 9-11-2007


I did not assume or imply that you were masculine. I did, however, assume that the person who posed the question through YouTube was male. My statement about our "concerned friend" was in reference to the individual who felt concerned enough to ask the original question, not you. What I meant to convey is that I wish that the question could have been turned around to place the spotlight on the asker's view of blackness. That scrutiny may have been enough to remove questions like it from future debates.

I am in no way disappointed by your commentary. On the contrary, I felt the post and its theme where compelling enough to join in on the conversation. What I had hoped to be conveyed by my opening and closing is that although I agree with the essence of your commentary, I hold a different point of view on some of its sub-points.

To be honest, I am not interested in looking at blackness from a scholastic viewpoint or otherwise. I am more interested in the reasons why some feel the need to create or perpetuate such concepts. There will never be an authority on blackness. We have many more pressing concerns than theorizing about blackness.

As I stated before, I do not know one person, personally, who has referred to Bill Clinton in this manner. I did not say I was unaware of him being labeled as such. If someone chooses to accept Toni Morrison's opinion as their own, fine. But I would not assume that she speaks for everyone of color. Furthermore, I would add that an in-depth analysis of the Clinton presidency (his politics and policies; not his social behaviors) would produce little evidence to support this assertion.

The term "real brother" implies something more than the word "brother." And, as I am sure that you are aware, people of African-descent are not the only ones to use the terms "brother" and "sister" to refer to each other. Furthermore, people of African-descent do not use this term unanimously--not everyone of African descent are what multi-generational African-Americans would label as "black."

So yes, some do use the words brother and sister to refer to each other. And many use terms which are far less flattering. My statement is simply that what makes a person a "real brother" can be endlessly debated similarly to what makes a person black. I don't think either debate would produce anything of value.

I find Obama's candidacy to be refreshing and I hope it ushers in an era where we can move beyond race-based politics.

Sent by RM | 7:21 PM | 9-11-2007


You wrote: "There will never be an authority on blackness. We have many more pressing concerns than theorizing about blackness."

I wrote on the op-ed: "Finding the answer to this peculiar question is an exasperating process because we (as blacks) have no concrete response to defining the ambiguous term called "blackness."

I don't think the above statements show we are on opposite sides of the fence. And if you disagree with me on some points, that's very cool! This is what make this country great. Your points were well-taken.

The column wasn't a piece to foster the concept of "group-think;" it was my point of view to actually denounce how some folks think. Imagine that!

Sent by Moji | 12:45 PM | 9-12-2007

About the running for the highest office in the land:
To narrow the field even further, let me relate a revelation i had after i???d been traveling a bit. This was back in July of ???04???just got back from six months in the east and was in Cape Town, South Africa.
The 911 Moore film was being bootlegged all over the place. So naturally being a film buff and hailing from the South Bronx and all???, i took a gander. I was shocked to learn, according to the documentary, that the Black congressional members were pleading for some democracy help in the fraudulent goings-on with the 2000 election. And true to (white) American history form, not one millionaire senator came to the aid of the process.

???So, i say any cat running for office now???who was in office then, should just recuse themselves from the race as they don???t really believe in the process ??? full stop!

I???m gonna be voting absentee ballot for both the New York primaries (March) and the general elections in November, as i live and work in South Africa.

Sent by anthony | 10:16 PM | 9-30-2007