The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

The Two-ness of Being Barack Obama, Pt. 1.

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series The Two-ness of Being Barack Obama

…It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

— W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folks

The quote above, from W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folks, came to mind in the wake of the by now over-reported remarks Senate majority leader Harry Reid made about then Senator Obama.

The authors quote Reid as saying privately that Obama, as a black candidate, could be successful thanks, in part, to his “light-skinned” appearance and speaking patterns “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”

“He [Reid] was wowed by Obama’s oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama — a ‘light-skinned’ African American ‘with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,’ ” Halperin and Heilemann say.

“Reid was convinced, in fact, that Obama’s race would help him more than hurt him in a bid for the Democratic nomination,” they write.

In a statement to CNN, Reid said, “I deeply regret using such a poor choice of words.”

“I sincerely apologize for offending any and all Americans, especially African Americans for my improper comments.

What DuBois articulated, what Reid recognized (and somewhat inarticulately pointed out) in Obama, was and what I, Obama and just about ever other middle class African American of a certain generation learned was a pre-requisite schizophrenia required to succeed in America — that is, the America that existed beyond our homes, schools, churches, neighborhoods and communities: the ability to exist in two worlds and move gracefully between them.

We do it sometimes without being conscious of it or intending to do it, but it’s something I’m sure we were almost all taught: if you want to succeed, you have to speak and behave and carry yourself in a certain fashion. This was probably doubly true for young black males. It is a significant and repeated topic in what I and others call “Black Man 101.” We were implicitly and explicitly taught that we could succeed and we were expected to succeed, the racism of the larger society notwithstanding. And success, for us, meant carrying ourselves in a certain manner: in a way that is not threatening to the majority — the white majority, that is.

Every day, African-American men consciously work to offset stereotypes about them _ that they are dangerous, aggressive, angry. Some smile a lot, dress conservatively and speak with deference: “Yes, sir,” or “No, ma’am.” They are mindful of their bodies, careful not to dart into closing elevators or stand too close in grocery stores.

It’s all about surviving, and trying to thrive, in a nation where biased views of black men stubbornly hang on decades after segregation and where statistics show a yawning gap between the lives of white men and black men. Black men’s median wages are barely three-fourths those of whites; nearly 1 in 3 black men will spend time behind bars during his life; and, on average, black men die six years earlier than whites.

Sure, everyone has ways of coping with other people’s perceptions: Who acts the same at work as they do with their kids, or their high school friends?

But for black men, there’s more at stake. If they don’t carefully calculate how to handle everyday situations — in ways that usually go unnoticed — they can end up out of a job, in jail or dead.

This is what probably gave rise to type known as the “non-threatening black man.” The NTBM, as I call him, is as recognizable as he is difficult to define. The difficulty arises not from an inability to define the NTBM — or any other African-American stereotype — but rather an unwillingness to do so either because it offends the sensibilities of other, or because it leads to obvious questions our culture that we’d rather not have to answer. (Not that we’re a nation of cowards when it comes to race, or anything…)

Those who don’t particularly care whom they offend or who are inexperienced at navigating this particular minefield will inevitably set off explosions when they venture into that unmapped and avoided region of the American psyche. Bob Garfield, however, came as close as anyone else to defining it in early 2008.

Yes, the market. And, yes, acceptably black. We used that term the other day on “Hardball with Chris Matthews” to talk about Sen. Barack Obama and watched the interviewer visibly flinch. “I’m gonna take some of the edge off of what you just said,” he said.

What edge? Acceptably black means being nonthreatening to white people inclined to feeling threatened by black people. It means standard English, clean-cut appearance (or, as Joe Biden fumbled, “clean”) and the most Caucasian features possible. These obviously are not objective measures of character or worth; just as obviously, they are measures of what sells to the vast, white audience. Halle Berry and Denzel Washington are acceptably black. Your local news anchors are acceptably black. Tupac was not.

Like I said, the NTBM is as recognizable as he is difficult to describe. But you know him when you seem him. For example, when Eddie Murphy — in his 1983 concert film Delirious — riffed on the likely reaction of white America if he had taken Brooke Shields to the Grammys, rather than Michael Jackson, everyone got the joke. Some of the laughter in response was nervous laughter, and there was some squirming in seats. But everyone got the joke because everyone knew NTBM when they saw him, and everyone knew Murphy wasn’t it. Everyone including Murphy.

You can’t describe him, but you know who he’s not. You know he’s not the “black boogeyman,” the “bad negro,” the “black brute,” or the “angry black man.” He doesn’t do the things that “they” do. He doesn’t look like them, dress like them, walk like them, or talk like them.

In other words, he’s more like you, and thus you’re more likely to like him.

I wonder what it is, for instance, that makes a black person that I meet, and then like, seem “likable” to me. Since I was trained as a child to be wary of black people, and since that training was so ingrained in me at that impressionable stage that some of it still remains, then does something happen during my interactions with “likable” black people that overcomes that early training? Do I “like” that person because I’ve overcome the training that told me, and still tells me, that that person is fundamentally different from me–as in, scary, or intimidating? Or even dangerous? Or do I like that person because he or she seems especially non-threatening somehow? As if that person, instead of me, is the one who’s somehow overcoming my deep-seated worries and fears, perhaps by seeming to be especially nice, or friendly, or “open”?

At least, so long as he continues to be non-threatening.

And so long no one points out to you what it means and what it perhaps says about you that. Thus requiring you to “look at yourself through the eyes of others,” as DuBois put it, and cause you to experience your own “twoness of being.”


Series NavigationThe Two-ness of Being Barack Obama, Pt. 2

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: