If Barack Obama fails to become president of the United States, his race-his blackness-will be seen as a reason for that.
But ironically, Obama lost an election for Congress to ex-Black Panther Bobby Rush in part because some felt that Obama-a biracial Ivy Leaguer from Hawaii-wasn’t “black enough.”
If all of that seems complicated, consider the case of Walter White.
Walter White was one of the most important figures in civil rights and black culture (Harlem Renaissance and New Negro movements) in the first half of the twentieth century. He headed the NAACP from 1936 until his death in 1955, during which time the organization achieved numerous political and judicial victories for African Americans.
One of White’s distinguishing features was that he looked, well, white. Indeed, you could say he looked “very” white, if there is such a term.
Walter White is blacker than you.
As he said in his autobiography A Man Called White: “I am a Negro. My skin is white, my eyes are blue, my hair is blond. The traits of my race are nowhere visible upon me.” White’s entry in Wikipedia notes that “all of his family was light-skinned, and his mother was also blue-eyed and blonde. Her maternal grandparents were Dilsia, a slave, and William Henry Harrison, the future President. “
White could easily have “passed” for white, and avoided the constraints of racism that faced black Americans. But he was “racialized” by several incidents that happened in his life. For example,
One of the major events in his life that helped him make this decision (to choose to go through life as a black man) was the race riot in Atlanta, Georgia in 1906; he escaped the mob only because his fair complexion allowed him to pass through it safely.
This would lead him to say “I am not white. There is nothing in my heart which tempts me to think I am.”
Some of his most important, and courageous work, involved his investigations of lynching and race riots in the South.
White used his appearance to increase his effectiveness in conducting investigations of lynchings and race riots. He could “pass” and talk to whites, but also manage to identify himself as black and talk to the African-American community. Such work was dangerous, but he investigated 41 lynchings and eight race riots while working with the NAACP.
One of the first riots he investigated was that of October 1919 in Elaine, Arkansas, where more than 200 sharecropper farmers had been killed by white vigilantes and Federal troops in Phillips County. The case had both labor and racial issues. The white militias had come to the town and hunted down blacks after one white man was killed in a shootout at a church where black sharecroppers were meeting on issues related to organizing with an agrarian union.
White was granted credentials from the Chicago Daily News. That enabled him to obtain an interview with Governor Charles Hillman Brough of Arkansas, who in turn gave him a letter of recommendation and his autographed photograph.
White was in Phillips County for only a brief time before his identity was discovered; he took the first train back to Little Rock. The conductor told him that he was leaving “just when the fun is going to start”, because they had found out that there was a “damned yellow nigger passing for white and the boys are going to get him.” Asked what they would do to him, the conductor told White that, “[W]hen they get through with him he won’t pass for white no more!”
Walter White’s story provides a true measure of what blackness is about. And it’s not about how you look, or how you talk, or what you know.
When a person embraces, loves, and cares for his fellow black people – to the point that he would risk his life to enable their progress – that’s about as black as black can get.
I wish I could be that black.