What is Blackness? A Primer from Algernon Austin

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, in the 1990s Obama lost an election for a seat in Congress to ex-Black Panther Bobby Rush because Obama-a biracial person from Hawaii-was not seen as being “black enough.”

All of this raises the question: what is blackness? That topic has been the subject of heated debate among scholars, poets, and street people alike.

An interesting view of this subject comes from the book Achieving Blackness: Race, Black Nationalism, and Afrocentrism in the Twentieth Century, by Algernon Austin. Mr. Austin, who has Ph.D. in Sociology, is director of the Race, Ethnicity and the Economy Program at the Economic Policy Institute. He is also the founder and director of the Thora Institute.

Austin starts with the view that race and blackness are not about biology, but about society’s view of what blackness is and how blacks should behave. He then looks at the different-and sometimes competing-views of blackness held by groups like the Nation of Islam, the Black Panthers, and black America at large during the Black Power and Afrocentrism eras that stretched from the 1950s/60s through the 1990s.

He has a section in his book which is like a “Race and Blackness 101” primer. I liked the concise and provocative way he presented “the basics” of the subject of racial identity. I hope you will find the following passages from his book as engaging as I did.

Continue reading

The Blackness of Walter White

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, NAACP
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.

Continue reading