Avoiding Pigeonholes in Matters of Race Commentator Mary Curtis is tired of people telling her she doesn't seem like a black person — as if there was only one way to be African-American in the United States. Recent debate over whether Sen. Barack Obama is "black enough" to garner the African-American vote made her think about the issue again.
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Avoiding Pigeonholes in Matters of Race

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Avoiding Pigeonholes in Matters of Race

Avoiding Pigeonholes in Matters of Race

Avoiding Pigeonholes in Matters of Race

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Commentator Mary Curtis is tired of people telling her she doesn't seem like a black person — as if there was only one way to be African-American in the United States. Recent debate over whether Sen. Barack Obama is "black enough" to garner the African-American vote made her think about the issue again.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Democratic Senator Barack Obama will officially announce his run for the presidency tomorrow. That will not catch anyone by surprise. But ever since Obama started talking about running, there's been discussion about whether he is black enough to win the African American vote.

Well, commentator Mary Curtis is familiar with that assessment. She too is an African American. And she's tired of people telling her that she doesn't seem like a black person.

MARY CURTIS: If I had a nickel for every person who told me you're not like most black people, I'd be Bill Gates rich. People think they're paying me a compliment. Really, they're assuming there's only one authentic way to be black. The further you veer from that path, the lighter you become.

Use correct grammar, and you're café au lait. Sing a Sondheim lyric, and you're that much closer to vanilla town. It's all based on stereotypes. And it's silly. All races and lifestyles deal with it, but it's worse with African Americans, as if you trade in your culture for success. I don't hear anyone asking President Bush to prove he is authentically white.

Instead, the rapper 50 Cent accuses Oprah Winfrey of abandoning her blackness to appeal to her white audience. On NBC's "30 Rock," two black characters, a loudmouth comedian and a Harvard educated comedy writer, argue over which one best represents the race and which is the embarrassment.

And from now until 2008 and beyond, columnists and critics wonder if rock star politician Barack Obama is both white enough and black enough to be elected president. It's a question that stalled black public figures outside of certain mold. Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice are black Republicans, to some a contradiction. Are they automatons, lackeys, or do they just disagree with items on the black agenda? On this issue, I'm a bit sensitive, raised as I was, by Republicans who managed to be both black and proud.

Of Obama, the script says he has a black father from Kenya, a white mother from Kansas. He has a law degree from Harvard and was never set upon by hoses or snarling dogs. His ancestors were never enslaved, never part of that messy American history that will make Obama more acceptable to those with selective amnesia. Obama doesn't hide the experiences that made him. But when asked how he identifies himself, Obama says black, embraces it.

Which wouldn't be a problem if we expanded the definition of what it means to be black or anything else. Race matters. Still, it's not the only thing that matters. It's hard enough to be yourself without being all things to everybody you resemble and everybody you don't. Easy categories may simplify the world, but it's not that simple. So let Oprah be Oprah and let Obama be Obama, without trying to parse every line he utters for evidence of racial solidarity. As for me, as the song goes -

Good times and bum times, I've seen them all in my beer. I'm still here. And still black. That's Sondheim, by the way, except for the black part.

NORRIS: Commentator Mary Curtis is a columnist for the Charlotte Observer.

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