Friday, December 5, 2008
by Kofi Khemet (Reposted 9/13/2013)
This blog was originally posted one month after the first election of Barack Obama. Sadly, it's just as relevant today as it was then.
See if you can answer the question posed by the moderator of the Facebook group The Center of Pan-African Culture. "Can you accurately determine, from looking at these photos, who is Black and who is White?" Write down your answers on a sheet of paper, read the blog and check your answers using the key provided at the end of this post. Then think about the question, is race a biological reality or a social construct designed to keep one group on top and the other on the bottom?
'With the election of Barack Obama to the presidency the question has come up, are we living in a post-racial society? In other words has the concept of race lost its cache, or meaning? Let's examine this and see what we come up with, it may be that we've reached that land that Dr. King saw from the mountain top. Of course, it may be as illusory as a mirage in the Sahara on a hot day.
What lies at the heart of this question is the notion that something fundamental has changed within society, either as a result of Obama's campaign or independent of that campaign. As we consider this question it would be good to lay out some facts that we can take into account. First of all 53% of Americans voted for Obama, or against McCain, as the case may be. While an almost equal number voted for McCain/Palin or against Obama. This being said we're talking about millions of people on each side of the line in almost equal numbers. You'll recall it was the independent/undecided voters that tipped the scales in Obama's favor.
Fact number two: throughout the campaign Obama was dogged by questions of lack of experience, etc. This was not the first time a candidate was labeled with that tag, but it was particularly galling in Obama's case, because it was very reminiscent of the infamous "grandfather clause." Witness the contrast here between McCain, who like Bush had generations of "leadership" experience behind him, while Obama had only his own experience in college and community organizing. How was he to overcome this gap without going back in time and rewriting history. It appeared to be an insurmountable gap.
Fact number three: everything was thrown at him, including the kitchen sink, by Hillary, McCain and Palin. No stone was left unhurled, including the use of his middle name as a label of unfitness for the job.
Fact number four: everything was thrown at him short of playing the obvious race card. Obama was cool enough to never even bring up race, but he did respond forcefully when his opponents tried to broach it in a circuitous manner.
Fact number five: race was an issue, albeit an unspoken issue. It was the 800 lb. gorilla in the room, but Obama deftly avoided it to the consternation of some of his Black supporters, who in the end were understanding enough to know why he was leaving that issue alone.
What his opponents did say about race came through when they spoke of his numbers. They always tried to make him "the Black candidate." In the past other candidates, like Carl Stokes, were dogged with accusations like this and came up with creative ways of addressing it, without alienating his supporters of either race. Obama was just as deft in dealing with the Reverend Wright issue, which was a race issue; his middle name issue "Hussein," which was a race/religious issue and the terrorist association issue, which was not so much a race issue; but spoke to how "different" he was compared to the other candidates.
All of the above issues were couched in a blanket of "difference." All the diversity training in the world was not enough to keep the other candidates from pointing out, "he's not like us." The logical conclusion here is that race is still very much an issue that cannot be overlooked, just like that 800 lb. gorilla in the room.
In the end it appears that Obama won not because of some drastic shift in the status quo, or the racial proclivities of whites, but rather by the use of superior strategy, gamesmanship and good timing.
The fact is America is as backwards when it comes to attitudes about race today as it ever has been. In a presentation I'm readying for publication entitled, "Black Men On The Money," I'll deal with the some of these attitudes and perceptions. Here's a little exercise you can do right now to see where you're really at on the issue of race. Take a look at the picture at the beginning of this article and make a note of what race you think each of these people represent. Some of them you may know by name and/or face and others may be unfamiliar to you. Regardless, without using a reference work, or the internet to try and identify them first, just look at them as people and see if you can correctly identify their "race."
When you're done use the photo key that below for information on each person seen in the picture. This is something that we all need to look at very carefully and consider what our own attitudes are toward the persistent question of racial identity in America."
(As you go down the list of names apply them to the pictures from left to right starting at the top left corner.)
- Walt Disney (1901-1966), cartoonist and founder of the Walt Disney, Co. We assume that he's white, but have not done the research to prove it yet.
- Adam Clayton Powell IV (1962), son of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. One of a long line of African American politicians in NY. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. had a long and illustrious career as a congressman. What many young people may not remember is the personal side of his story. He had 3 marriages to Isabelle Washington, Hazel Scott and Yvette Diago. Adam Clayton Powell IV was born of his 3rd wife and should not be confused with his nephew, also a New York politician. His half brother Adam Clayton Powell III is the father of the other Adam Clayton Powell IV.
- Halle Berry (1966), African American movie star and Academy Award winner.
- Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (1908-1972), the African American congressman from NY, who served continuously from 1945-1971.
- Walt Disney (1901-1966), an older picture of Disney for comparison with Powell.
- Fredi Washington (1903-1994), African American movie star, famous for her portrayal of a mixed child who decided to pass for white in the 1934 movie, “Imitation of Life.” The theme of this film was derived from the idea of the “tragic mulatto.” In other words someone who could not fit in the Black world and wouldn't be accepted in the white world. In part this idea developed as a result of Reconstruction Era politics, where the Black representatives from the south were disparaged as dysfunctional incompetents who were foisted on the southerners. In part this attitude could have developed from the fact that there were no African American representatives from the north until well into the twentieth century. Her sister married Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.
- Rep. G.K. Butterfield, SC (1947-), African American congressman from South Carolina, showing us that racial standards have not changed. He comes from a well known African American family in South Carolina.
- Governor Pio Pico (1801-1894), the last Mexican governor of Alta (upper) California, also of African descent. In dealing with this subject it has to be kept in mind that “racial” designations in Mexico are much different than in the U.S. Pio's mother was described as a mulatta (half white and half Black); his father was described as mestizo (half Indian and half white). In the Wikipedia article on Pico he's described as African, Native American and Spanish. This is very misleading, because the assumption is that Spanish equals pure white. Three hundred years after the Moors were ousted from Spain and they're now white as the driven snow, I don't think so. To this day the Spanish still show traces of their Moorish heritage, which by the way was synonymous in Europe for Black.
- Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. (1865-1953), an obituary picture of the founder of this powerful NY dynasty showing the similarity and differences in his appearance and that of his offspring. He presided over the well known African American, Abyssinian Baptist Church in NY for years.
- Mary Ellen Pleasant (1814-1904), African American civil rights leader from California, entrepreneur and supporter of the abolitionist cause.
- Master Fard Muhammad (1877-?), mentor to Elijah Muhammad. Identified only as an Asiatic Black man. No further information on him has been forthcoming. As with the origins of many religious organizations his own origins are shrouded in mystery.
- Lt. General José Antonio Maceo y Grajales (1868-1896), second in command of the Cuban Army of Independence. This picture was the first one I've found of him where he actually appears to be of African descent. Many pictures of him have been bleached or altered to the point where he appears to be “white,” however his mother was definitely was definitely of African descent. His father was from Venezuela, which does not exclude the possibility of an African admixture. As of this writing I need further information on him.
- Barbara Walters (1929), I haven't done the research on her background yet, but pay close attention to the lips and the nose and compare them with other people in this collage. She admittedly, had an affair with the African American Sen. Edward Brooke and wrote about it in her recent book. Her father also made his living from a well known chain of night clubs known as the Latin Quarter. Even today, many ball players from the Caribbean claim their Latin heritage, while the story of their African heritage is written all over their faces.
- Commander Winston Churchill (1874-1965), admittedly had Native American predecessors. His mother was Lady Randolph of the American Randolphs, which were also related to a number of other American aristocratic families. Keep in mind that depending on what tribe we're talking about and when, that could mean an admixture of African blood, as well. Many if not most living descendants of Africans mixed with Native Americans somewhere along the way.
- Rep. Augustus Hawkins, CA (1907-2007), African American congressman for many years, often mistaken for white.
- Mary Church Terrell, (1863-1954), one of two women founders of the NAACP, her father was believed to be mulatto and she was obviously very light-skinned, but did not pass. She attended two Ohio schools, Antioch and Oberlin and graduated with a Masters from Oberlin in about 1886. She was prominent in the women's movement and the struggle for civil rights up until her death in 1954.
- Generalissimo Vicente Ramón Guerrero Saldaña, (1782-1831), here's the 2nd president of Mexico, one of the revolutionary fighters and liberator of the African slaves in Mexico. They say he's the George Washington and Abraham Lincoln of Mexico all in one. Really! Maybe that's more true than they realize. I could do a series of depictions of him also showing the same tendency to downplay his African origins to the point where we could actually call it artistic genocide. This applies to many Mexican and American leaders, as well.
- Walter White (1893-1995), former Executive Director of the NAACP, author and NAACP undercover agent. One of his main tasks with the NAACP was to infiltrate white hate groups, like the KKK, and report back with their activities. At one point White had to leave a town when word got out that he was in town as a spy. As he was leaving one of the white train attendants commented on what they were going to do to that “nigger” when they caught up with him. Here's a statement by White as to his appearance,
"'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.' Five of his great-great-great-grandparents were black and the other 27 were white. 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. Her mother Marie Harrison was one of Dilsia's daughters and her father Augustus Ware was also white.
Here we have one of the best examples of what it means to be and African American in the U.S., even today. I know people right now who are Black in every sense of the word, but in appearance (blonde hair and white skin) appear to be white.
- Charles W. Chesnutt (1858-1953), African American author. He could have passed for white, but chose not to.
- Sen. Edward W. Brooke III (1919), Here we have Senator Brooke. I had a recent picture of him with President G.W. Bush and you could not tell the difference between their skin color as they shook hands or in their hair texture. Obviously, he could have passed for white, but did not. He's in the record books now as the “first” and only African American Senator from Massachusetts.
- Mariah Carey (1970), of Afro-Venezuelan extraction. Again, I've seen “white” people with darker tans than hers, but she's admittedly Black.
- William Alexander Leidesdorff (1810-1848), of Afro-Germanic extraction from the West Indies. He had a bad experience with race in Louisiana. When he moved to California he passed for white and never looked back. He was a huge landholder in California, leaving an estate valued in excess of 1 million dollars upon his untimely death; a government official for the Mexican government; one of San Francisco's first hoteliers and a ship captain. The California gold rush began on his property out near present day Folsom, California where this picture hangs in the local museum.
- James Beckwourth (1798-1866), discoverer of the lowest pass over the Sierra Nevada mountains, rancher, fur trapper, professional gambler, mountain man, trading post operator and Indian chief. His African heritage is clear, however he too has been a victim of artistic genocide and in many pictures appears white. In fact he was portrayed by a white actor in the 1951 film production “Tomahawk.” His first name is changed to Sol, but clearly we recognize in the character Sol Beckworth frontiersman, the real man James Beckwourth.
- Dr. Halle Tanner Dillon Johnson (1861-1904), here's one of my relatives. I picked her for the similarity in her appearance and that of Empress Menen. They could be sisters. I was originally going to use her brother Henry Ossawa Tanner, but I couldn't find a good copy of the picture I was looking for. Amazingly, with all of her education and knowledge she died birthing her 3rd child.
- General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas (1762-1806), born Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie, the son of a low-ranking French nobleman and a slave woman from Haiti, he was France's answer to Toussaint L'Overture. Totally loyal to France, supporter of the revolution and father of two of the greatest men of France, who are both included in this photo-essay.
- Fredi Washington (1903-1994), here's another depiction of Fredi Washington where she appears to be “white.” This was part of the advertisement for the original version of “Imitation of Life.”
- Alexandre Dumas, fils (1802-1870), born Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie, the elder Alexandre Dumas, author of “The Three Musketeers,” “The Man in the Iron Mask,” “The Count of Monte Cristo” and many other full length novels too numerous to mention here. Clearly, you can see his African roots in his face and hair. It was a well known fact that he was of African origin at that time. He was quite wealthy and popular with the ladies of France, but he was advised to pick another vacation venue, besides the U.S., because of the attitude of whites and the fear of a “white backlash” affecting his book sales if it became known that he was Black in the U.S.
- Alexandre Dumas, pere (1824-1895), the younger Dumas was famous for his theatrical productions. I am not familiar with his most famous productions, but suffice it to say that all three Dumas' have statues in a place of honor in France today.
- Empress Menen of Ethiopia, (1889-1962) born Wolete Giyorgis, she was the consort of Haile Selassie. Despite appearances this woman is actually a dark-skinned Caucasian. It was very difficult to find a good picture of her without her crown on, but I was able to dig this one up. More research needs to be done on her life and accomplishments. To some extent she's been overshadowed by her husband the Emporer.
- Dr. William Key (1833-1909), last, but not least. Here we have Dr. William Key, ex-slave turned horse doctor from Shelbyville, TN. Most noted for his “talking” horse. Yes, that's right. I said it. A talking horse. As a matter of fact this horse could do quite a few things. See Blakfacts Volume I for more information on Dr. William Key and his horse Jim Key.