Why? CNN's "Black in America" and NPR's "State of the Re:Union" Offer Up a Potpourri of Tragic Mulattoes Before a National Audience
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Watching CNN, and listening to NPR on Sunday night, reminded me that Imitation of Lifewas not just a movie or a play; for many of us, such stories of racial identity, confusion, denial, and shame are all too real.
CNN's special on colorism and mixed race identity went as expected. It profiled many maladjusted young black people who would fail any brown paper bag test, yet have an almost pathological obsession with wanting to be white. I was laughing at the TV screen during the show because these brown complected black folks, who desperately want to "pass," would have been better suited for a skit on Chappelle's Show, than discussing matters of "race" and "culture" on national television.
As an antidote to such tragic mulattoes, Soledad O'Brien's Black in America special also profiled some well-adjusted black people who understand that race is a fiction. Despite the "race" of their not black parent, they understand that the one drop rule prevails in the United States, and these individuals gain strength and grounding from their identities as Black Americans.
By comparison, NPR's State of the Re:Union ran a much more powerful and important show on Sunday night. All aspects of the sad and twisted American obsession with race, and how it has damaged all of us, were on clear display there.
There is a cruel and plain truth which ties CNN's "Black in America", and NPR's "Pike County, Ohio: As Black as We Wish to Be", together.
Being "black" is a social, economic, political, and social liability in the United States. Blackness is fetishized, desired, coveted, and wanted by non-whites. But, no one really wants to be black. Why should they? If one is assessing life chances, wealth, social stigma, risk, danger, and the added stress and anxiety that comes with being a black American--or another person of color (to varying degrees)--who would opt in to such an arrangement?
The young tragic mulattoes on CNN understand this fact. The black people who can pass for white in Pike County, Ohio certainly understand this fact: there, one of them even states that being black in America is too difficult, and who would want to be such a thing?
Thus, a provocative question: would any "rational" actor choose to be black (or not white) in America?
Would a self-interested, utility maximizing person, with complete information, choose such a racial identity? Are those black people who dare to pass for white--their cowardice being noted--just doing the "smart" and "rational" thing? Should they be condemned for such a "logical" and pragmatic decision? Are those who cannot cross over just envious of those who can?
When I was about nine years old, me and a friend, both of us black were wandering around the neighborhood in-between bouts of mischief--throwing rocks at cars, setting fires, chasing girls around the neighborhood with dog poop on a stick--and would fill these moments with the types of profound, deep, and intellectual conversations befitting young "men" of our age.
I asked my friend, "would he choose to be white?"
My friend meditated for a moment on the question and said "no" because he would not know how to act. We went back and forth a bit more, reasoning as 9 year old boys do about the ways of the world. Our conclusion was that being black gave us more character and courage than the white kids had because we had to work harder for the same things. Black people were also pretty tough given all the stuff that had been done to us, and we were still here trying to do the right thing. The answer seemed right at the time.
He was cool people. I found out years later that he either died, became homeless, ended up on drugs, got killed because of some gang business and a woman, or some combination of all those things. Either way he was gone.
His brother got the "bug" from heroine, what we now call AIDS, and died. His mom was on drugs too when we were kids. I didn't realize that at the time. She was nice too and then passed on. Their house was filthy. I never said anything because he was my friend, and I was raised to respect people who were good to you and let you in their house.
He liked to eat at my house for dinner. Now I realize why my mother and father always invited him over. I think that one time I caught my father, who was homeless as a kid, secretly giving him some money during one time when he was looking especially raggedy and dirty. I buy homeless people food and give them money during the holidays. I probably got that habit from my dad.
As an adult, I now also realize why my mom would make sure that my friend got invited to my birthday parties, or bought him sodas or ice cream when she and I would go for our nightly walk, and he happened to always just show up spontaneously. When you are bit older and wiser you realize things that childhood innocence protected you from.
My friend and his family also had a great and nice dog named Sport. He was a big German Shepherd who would playfully fight with my dog Bandit. It was all the type of rough housing that dogs who live a few houses away tend to do. Neither got hurt. Their tails wagged the whole time, and then they licked each other's faces and came back to play the next day. One day my friend and his family were all gone.
My mom always regretted that they didn't give Sport to us to keep. We worried that he was abandoned and/or put down. We would have taken care of him. He was a good dog. I know that Bandit would not have minded--he was magnanimous and regal that way.
Even in those seemingly race neutral moments, I also remember my parents saying that we as black folks should try to do right by each other. That even included our pets.
This was not a claim that we should not do right by our white brothers and sisters in the human family. I think it was something more basic about imagined kinship, respectability, shared identity, and the power of those types of connections for black people, historically.
The language was never explicitly used in such a way at the time; but, now that I have such a vocabulary, it seems to make sense.
Looking back, I reason that like most children, my friend and I had internalized what our parents and role-models had taught us about what it meant to be black in America.
I know that I am not alone in having had similar conversations about race.
Were those of us who had such exchanges just noble fools? Or should our answer have been "hell yes" to the prospect of choosing to be white in America? Would the path be that much easier?