I would like to thank those of you who donated to the We Are Respectable Negroes holiday donation drive. "Black Pete" still has some of you. When you escape from him, do try to thrown in some silver or paper if you can. It will be very much appreciated.
America's history of blackface race minstrelsy has a far more "benign" cousin in the Netherlands. Black Pete, or his proper name, "Zwarte Piet," is Santa Clause's "servant". I do not think that Black Pete is a direct ancestor of Mantan Moreland or Thomas Rice; but they may be first or second cousins.
[A question, in the Color Matching Game which We Are Respectable Negroes came up with several years ago, what would Black Pete be? "Blurple?"
CNN and Soleded O'Brien have made a cottage industry out of the Black in America series. Tonight, they will air their newest installment on the issue of "colorism" in the black community:
“I don’t really feel Black,” says 17-year-old Nayo Jones. Her mother is Black; she was raised apart from her by her White father, and she identifies herself as biracial. “I was raised up with White people, White music, White food so it’s not something I know,” she says in a new documentary that explores the sensitive concepts of race, cultural identity, and skin tone.
For the fifth installment of her groundbreaking Black in America series, CNN anchor and special correspondent Soledad O’Brien reports for Who is Black in America? The documentary debuts Sunday, Dec. 09 at 8:00p.m. and 11:00p.m. ET & PT and replays on Saturday, Dec. 15 at 8:00p.m. and 11:00p.m. ET & PT.
Is Jones Black? Is Blackness based upon skin color or other factors? The 2010 U.S. Census found 15 percent of new marriages are interracial, a figure that is twice what was reported in 1980. One in seven American newborns were of mixed race in 2010, representing an increase of two percent from the 2000 U.S. Census. Within this context, O’Brien examines how much regarding race and identity are personal choices vs. reflections of an external social construct.
Although Black Americans' presence in the New World predates the founding of the United States, it would seem that we are apparently quite fascinating to white folks and others.
Our ways are so strange that the anthropomorphic gaze continues even into the year 2012: black and brown folks (the latter with the Latino in America series) are the topic of in depth reporting about our mysterious habits on a national news network.
The mass media is in a double bind here. If series such as Black in America did not exist, there are some who would complain that African-Americans are not featured "positively" in the news media. This is not to suggest that black Americans are not prominent on the news: see the disproportionately skewed and negative coverage of black criminals on the evening news, for example.
Likewise, Black in America and other such shows can be criticized for depicting African-Americans as a perpetual Other, to be pathologized, studied, explored, and made the topic of a documentary/(white) anthropomorphic gaze. While post civil right America may be past the "look, I see a negro!" phase of its development, there is still something amiss with specials such as CNN's Black in America.
Part of my discomfort with such shows is that they break down the important and necessary wall between the private and public in the black community. As I have mentioned many times, Richard Iton's powerfully insightful concept "the black superpublic" is spot on here.
It explains the ways that technology, changing generational norms about the boundaries of the African-American community, the end of the black counter-public, and popular culture have facilitated how the private talk of African-American spaces such as barbershops, churches, and hair salons have been made into commerce, what is then circulated by the mass media for profit.
My main concern about the Black in America series is one that I addressed several years ago in a piece called "White in America: CNN's Never to Be Made Documentary Special." This essay won WARN a Black Weblog Award, and got us some of our earliest national attention.
There I demonstrated how the Black in America, as well as CNN's other "insert non-white people in America title shows," normalize whiteness. On the surface, Soledad O'brien, a person who I respect a great deal as a TV personality, is reinforcing a belief that white people and white culture are "normal." Consequently, they are not going to be the topic of one of those specials. Once more, in an era dominated by colorblind racism, even "progressive" efforts often do the work of white privilege and (benign) white supremacy.
Part of my discomfort is also personal. I believe that matters which remain unresolved in the black community, are rooted in traumas centuries-old from rape and forced miscegenation, and that come from living in a society which systematically devalues people of color, are not yet ready to be processed before a national audience.
For example, when hearing about some of the show's segments on colorism in the black community, I grimace when reading passages such as this one:
“I look at Nayo who is tortured and squirming in her chair about her identity. The question is: Is it you who decides you are black or society?
I have a similar background but my parents were clear and articulate. My experience was almost the opposite of hers. Growing up: we were black!
I’m grateful that my parents helped us form an identity – they gave it to us. They helped us to navigate society.
I never thought bi-racial was an identity. My identity is black. I thought (the fact that one parent was white and another was black) that it was a math equation of how I came to be.
Both girls (profiled in the documentary) would say I get to decide (what I am). But the fact is that the decision has been made for them.
Our documentary isn’t there to give you the answers. We want to raise the questions about how we value and judge each other on skin color. We’re not post-racial and there is a real penalty – the data shows – for skin color. Yet some people still don’t believe that.”
I have loved across the colorline. My rule regarding "multiracial" or "mixed race" identity has been a consistent one. Black people come in many hues. If I were to have a child with a white woman our progeny is black. For me, this is a litmus test that inexorably governs our relationship. It is not a fictive scenario: I have had this conversation on one occasion with someone I loved very much and almost married.
A child's "blackness" is not made any less suspect, "diluted," or "less than" because of their mother's "racial" background. There is only one race, the human race. As such, claims to "mixed race" identity are fictions that more often than not are rooted in one parent trying to access some type of white privilege for their offspring. Their mother could be white, Hispanic, Asian, or Native American. They are no less black.
My responsibility as a parent is to prepare my children for life in the world as it is, and to make sure they have the skills to be successful in it. I am not interested in entertaining silly fantasies of post-racial dreaming which could leave my son or daughter damaged or broken.
Some of the saddest and tragic students I have encountered in my several years of teaching have been "mixed" race black students who want to be anything but black. Like many ethnic "black" immigrants, who are very conscious about distancing themselves from African Americans, even while they benefit from our freedom struggle, many self-identified "multi-racial" or "mixed race" black students desperately want to believe that they are more "special" or "unique" than black Americans.
However, these young people are really trying to carve out a type of radical autonomy for themselves where they are a special class of blacks who are immune from white racism. This is a practical survival skill; it is also a failing one.
I have to admit, I do enjoy the moment of realization when many of these 21st century archetypal tragic mulattoes (and some ethnic blacks from the Caribbean and Africa) are forced to accept that they too are "black." The Racial State and the White gaze make little distinction for what in the history of black people in America is a quite common circumstance: most black Americans have a less than "pure" blood lineage. There are no "pure" races. This is especially true of African-Americans.
Will CNN's Black in America special on colorism in America take on this fact? Will Soledad O'Brien expose the fallacies and false pretexts driving the "multiracial" identity movement?