Friday, June 12, 2015

What Does it Mean to be 'Black' in America? From Pudd'nhead Wilson, to the 'White Negro', Zelig, and Now Rachel Dolezal

I hope that all of you are doing well. Again, I want to thank all of the kind friends and supporters of Chauncey, the podcast known as The Chauncey DeVega Show, and the various other types of public pedagogy I am engaged in who donated to our June fundraising drive.

I am still sending off "thank you" notes. I got a bit behind given the series of longer pieces I have written that were featured at Alternet and Salon. Pardon the pun, but the essay on racial battle fatigue, took a bit out of me. Personal truth-telling that is from the heart and deals with painful issues can be tiring. I was also distracted with writing a personal essay about race and the passing of the great professional wrestler known as the one and only Dusty Rhodes.

We are now very close to meeting the goal of the June fundraiser. I want to reiterate my thanks to those of you who subscribe to the site (and who also donated during the fundraiser! wow!), new folks who have signed up to give monthly donations, and those who threw some copper, gold, or silver into the collection bucket--a few very generous friends of WARN and actually donated twice. So moved.

If you can, are able, have the means to do--and find what I am trying to do here and elsewhere of value--please throw some change into the begging bowl that can be found via the Paypal link on the right side of the screen. I can then turn off my NPR-like fundraising voice and we can proceed as normal once the fundraiser is complete.

We have one more entry into the theater of the racially absurd in the Age of Obama. Her name is Rachel Dolezal. She is a white woman who is living her life as a "black" woman. Dolezal is also the leader of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the NAACP.

Mark Twain wrote the under-appreciated gem of racial satire called The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson. If the great one was alive today, he could have created no better a character and tale than Rachel Dolezal.

Reverse passing is not new. Being black in America has historically possessed many more liabilities than it does credits or assets.

As Rachel Dolezal has shown by her skillful navigation of America's racial bureaucracy, there are many hustles in these streets. One can be "white" and from South Africa or Egypt and apply for "minority" scholarships as an "African-American" and be awarded them because a given university or college does not want to risk getting sued and thus setting a dangerous precedent.

[Yes, I have personally witnessed said hustle in another life. I ended it.] 

There have also been white people who chose the legal designation of being "black" in America, perhaps the ultimate example where the personal is political, and a potent transgressive act against a white supremacist society.

For example, white women who married black men in colonial era Virginia, could face exile, fines, imprisonment, or other punishments.

In 1681, in Maryland, Nell Butler chose this path when she married "Negro Charles".

If she remained in union with her African-American "husband" (he was human property and Butler was a white indentured servant) she would lose all the protections of Whiteness and be forced into living as a slave for "Negro Charles'" owner.

When confronted and warned of the consequences of this interracial relationship by her master Lord Baltimore, Nell told him she would rather marry her soon to be husband and a black slave, than Lord Baltimore himself.

It would appear that Rachel Dolezal possesses no such motivations or sense of honor.

Is she  mentally ill? Perhaps. Is Dolezal just a con artist or fraud? Maybe both?

She may be a real-life version of Woody Allen's genius character Zelig.

Norman Mailer's "white negro" come true in the form of Rachel Dolezal is also a possibility:
So there was a new breed of adventurers, urban adventurers who drifted out at night looking for action with a black man’s code to fit their facts. The hipster had absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro, and for practical purposes could be considered a white Negro.
Whatever the narrative eventually becomes, she has exhibited one of the ultimate powers of white privilege and white supremacy: the "freedom" to be black, and by doing so to mine some of the limited resources that have been marginally allocated in response to the unique social justice claims of Black America.

Rachel Dolezal is an opportunity to ask some basic questions. What does it mean to be "black" in the United States and the West?

Is it a sense of shared historical experiences and linked fate? Is "blackness" a reflection of the cultural behaviors, norms, values, and "Africanisms" that survived the Middle Passage and became something new as a result of the hellish process of "seasoning", violence, and surviving as human property across the Black Atlantic?

The cool pose, "soul", improvisation, the drum, atonality, and rhythm in music, dance, the ring Shout, "the dozens", or double-dutch?

Is being "black" a function of melanin count, the hypodescent rule, phenotype, or the power of the White Gaze?

Is "blackness" something fixed and essential or is it more of a performance?

I know what "blackness" is when I see and experience it. But, we had all best be careful when we try to quantify and explain it.

How do you define what it means to be "black" in America? Does Rachel Dolezal fit that criteria?

As we try to answer those existential questions, one must be cautious as Rachel Dolezal could in fact become a black hole in the racial logic of post civil rights Age of Obama America that swallows us all.

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