As Black History Month rolls on, I asked myself a question that may seem stupid to most people: Who exactly is black and who is not? And how is it decided? Does the individual or society determine what we are or is it a combination of both? Are there other factors? Is this the Family Feud or actual objective science?
RACE AS SELF-IDENTIFICATION
Of course, there's a notion that people of bi-racial backgrounds have to identify with the dark side, because of the racialism of American culture. But is it possible that identifying with one's black side can actually help? When Geraldine Ferraro suggested that, she was branded a racist by Obama's people. But when someone as white as Halle Berry accepts her Oscar on behalf of all the "...nameless, faceless women of color" I had to wonder what really gave her the right... and what the hell she was talking about. Could it be that she's just trading on her blackness to get ahead?
Here's a question: what if what you believe you are is wrong or you just don’t know? You are what you are, despite what you’ve been told or tell yourself, whether you know it or not. Morgan Freeman (incidentally, one of the most vocal critics of Black History Month) thought, as many black Americans do, that he was part Native (Choctaw in his case)… how else to explain his features? High cheekbones, wavy hair... Then his DNA said, “uh-uh" and it turned out he was just part white. As Chris Rock said, “It’s easier to say, ‘We got a little Indian in us’ than, ‘We got raped a few times.’”
What if you really really really want to be something you’re not at all and you know it but refuse to admit it to yourself? Oprah Winfrey’s xenocentric worship of all things Zulu led to her telling a J’Berg audience that she was Zulu, then trotting out her proof: she likes Spur fries and Nando’s Chicken (I’m not making this up). I wear white jeans and love chile rellenos but that doesn't make me Mexican! As if that wasn't enough, a DNA test had proved Oprah was Zulu... so she said. Poo-pooing historians were quick to point out that Zulus probably weren’t taken by anyone as slaves, and that if they had been, it wasn’t to North America. Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi of the Zulus even said, “I hate to tell Oprah this, but she is sorely mistaken.” Her actual DNA test came later and traced at least one branch of her family tree to the Kpelle people, of (big surprise) West Africa. You could tell she was gutted. But Oprah is, if nothing else, a stubborn survivor and altruist who’s nepotistic in spirit, if not reality. Why else would she keep building schools in KwaZulu-Natal and not the Kpelle homeland? She didn’t even give her people the Ugg boots, iPods or Blackberries that she rewards her relatively wealthy television audience with. Eff them!
What about Wallace Fard Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam? Born Wallace Dodd Ford (according the notoriously smear-happy FBI... take it with a grain...), his heritage was a mix of Polynesian and white. But this is the guy that taught that whites were a race of devils created by the mad scientist Yakub on the isle of Patmos, whereas blacks were divine. Looking at a picture of him, it’s hard to believe that anyone thought of him as black, but it was, as they say, a different time.
George Herriman and Jacko, black when born but subsequently white... I think
Although it's controversial to suggest that being something other than white could ever benefit someone's career in this white supremacist world, some evidence is available that it has been done. Canadian conservationist Grey Owl was born Archibald Belaney in Hastings, England – although he claimed he was Apache because we all know that the red man has, across the racial board, an intrinsic understanding of the land. Iron Eyes Cody (nÃ© Espera de Corti) did the same, famously crying at the sight of litter in ubiquitous PSAs that aired in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Russian Yul Brynner (nÃ© ???? ?????????? ???????) claimed he was born on Sakhalin of Mongolian parents, an exotic background that made it only natural for him to play Egyptian, Thai, Native American and even a robot.
SOCIETAL CONFUSION, IGNORANCE AND OBSESSION ABOUT RACE
On top of all this, sometimes society just doesn't know what someone is and the need to ascribe race borders on unhealthy. What race is Rosario Dawson considered to be? I remember someone writing to the Sunday supplement to ask what Paula Abdul's background is. Fair enough, with a name like Abdul she could be Arab! Thankfully, she’s Mizrahi Jewish, which we’re pretty OK with now, so she's OK. Later the same questions arose when Mariah Carey started singing… we needed to know what her background was before we knew whether or not she was authentic and to what degree.
Who’s considered black has changed over time in other ways too. Even in the 19th century, Irish people were considered to be black in England, which says more about English racism than anything else. In other words, when Oscar Wilde moved to England, people locked their carriage doors when they saw him crossing the street. Some Irish still cling to this notion of their being not-just-metaphorically black... will someone please tell Bono to shut up already?
HISTORICAL REVISIONISM AND "BLACKNESS"
Further back, in Elizabethan times, anyone darker than snow was pretty much “black” in Europe. That’s why Othello remains pretty much the only chance for white actors to still don blackface and not get in trouble. Or, for the more PC aware, it's a chance to employ black actors in Shakespearian drama.
Nowadays, because of this nonsense, token black sidekicks in films set in the distant past are often explained as being the white hero’s Moorish bro. But are Moors black to modern society or are we still, for the most part, so ignorant and unexposed to actual Moors that we just are willing to assume they are, kind of like how Sacha Baron Cohen was able to convince so many people that, as Borat, he was Kazak, despite looking strangley Jewish and speaking broken English peppered with Yiddish and Czech? For the record, Moors are a Berber people who live in North Africa, especially Morocco (hence its name). The name “Moor” comes from the Maure Kingdom, a Numidian kingdom located in present day Tunisia and Algeria. DNA analysis has shown that their ancestors come from expectedly diverse backgrounds, but most Moors don’t consider themselves black. Only one or two years before Othello was written, the Moorish ambassador to the King of Barbary stayed in London. So Shakespeare probably knew what Moors looked like first hand, and when referring to Othello as black was just being Elizabethan English.
TRANSRACIALISM, PIGMENTOCRACY AND "REVERSE" COLORISM
While people tend to talk about colorism as an historical preference for lighter skin (brown bag parties, blue vein societies, skin-lightening creams, &c), there’s no way to deny that others aren't just as prejudiced in the opposite direction. The programmers at PAFF (L.A.’s Pan-African Film Festival) often choose to show Oceanic films, quantifying African-ness with skin tone and facial features – not shared heritage, history, culture or context. In doing so, the mere reality of being dark-skinned is what's most important, not a shared, broad African cultural history. (Personally, I don't think that all these people "look African" just because they're dark.) By this transracialism, Australo-Melanisians (including the Negritos of Southeast Asia, the Melanesians and Australia’s indigenous peoples) are presumably, as dark-skinned people, more African (and black) than light-skinned, actually African-descended people like Sinbad, Colin Powell, Quincy Jones, Ice-T, Alexander Dumas, Malcolm X and certainly black albinos, right? By this sort of shoddy logic, because dolphins look superficially like sharks, they must be fish.
I remember The Cosby Show being subjected to considerable criticism for daring to depict successful, rich black people. Perhaps the most surprising thing was that most of the criticism came from black critics, who felt that one man portraying a well-off black father in a functional family absolved white people of guilt whilst simulatenously failing to address persistant racial inequality by its portrayal of one well-to-do family. I see the point, but TV has a long history of portraying dysfunctional, buffoonish, impoverished black people and being enraged at the Cos's suggestion that black people could succeed is colonial mentality at work, if you ask me. Since then, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Bernie Mac Show and Baldwin Hills have failed to raise eyebrows with their focus on rich black Americans in functioning, loving families, which suggests that times are changing.
THE BLASIAN CONUNDRUM
BETWEEN RACE (IT'S BLACK, IT'S WHITE, IT'S TOUGH FOR YOU)
Then there are those ethnicities that exist in the blurred boundaries between widely accepted racial distinctions. None of these groups have much presence in the US, so why bring them up? Because their existence further problematizes the construction of race.
Humankind didn't evolve in racial bubbles with clear dileneations between Asians, blacks and whites. Long before the transatlantic slave trade, black Africans were interacting and mixing with non-black cultures in other parts of the world. East Africans traded extensively with Arabs, Persians and Indians and many trace their ancestry to these distant corners of the planet. Other Africans were forced into slavery and sent primarily throughout Arab lands but also as far as China. Still other black Africans mixed and melded with non-black neighbors, resulting in ethnicities that have characteristics of both blacks and whites, such as the Rashaida and Hadhramis, who have throughout history lived on both the African and Asian shores of the Red Sea. Other groups, like the Eritreans, Beja, Berbers, Taureg, Somalis and Nubians (and many others) developed from a mixture of black and white peoples.