Why is Barack Obama more black than white? The question of race and the ownership of different racial and therefore cultural spaces is a vexed one. As someone most people would look at and identify as ‘white’, I feel the exclusivity of the discourse.
The American banjo player and roots singer Rhiannon Giddens – talking about her latest project Songs of our Native Daughters in Songlines magazine – spoke about the slavery of “my ancestors”. She is the daughter of a European American father and an African American mother.
I’ve never taken a DIY DNA test
If I did, I might discover some unforeseen racial mix. We’re all African if you go back far enough. So why the segregation? And why, when that segregation is defined, is the black identity so wide, and the white identity so stunted?
For a clue, consider what V. S. Naipaul had to say about ex-slavery societies in the Caribbean, such as Martinique, where he travelled before writing his book The Middle Passage in 1961:
“Pedigrees are so carefully watched that there is no possibility whatsoever of anyone with the least tincture of Negro blood, however unapparent, passing as white.”
This fear of miscegenation runs deep in all American ex-slavery societies, as it does elsewhere in the world. Even in black or Indian communities, an instinctive preference for a lighter shade of skin in pervasive.
Perhaps this is at the root of the keen divide in US society today, where anyone with any amount of black ancestry therefore becomes designated, and self-identifies, as black?
Where does this leave me?
If my DNA showed up traces of African blood, what then? Could I claim the slaves of the Americas as my ancestors? Or am I condemned to forever be the descendant of oppressors?
And can I ever claim fraternity with Barack Obama? He is a politician I hugely admire. He stands for what I stand for. He is culturally my brother. Yet by current social mores, he is ‘black’ and I am ‘white’. We are divided.
Read this post for more of my musings on V. S. Naipaul’s The Middle Passage