An exploration of the question of skin colour and attitudes to skin colour including self-image, overt and covert racism, being black but not African American in America, and the possibility of a post-racial society.
It was April of the year 2004 on a trip to Ghana. I was going through my personal belongings after making the decision to move to the United States and picking out what items of sentimental value I wanted to take back with me. I started flipping through an old album of mine – you know, the kind with the sticky film – when I stopped at two pictures of my grade school class at the École Anglaise in Geneva.
My jaw dropped.
I blinked several times to reset the image I was seeing. This could not be! I was the only black person in my class! Why didn’t anyone tell me? But the question to myself was how I had never noticed it before in the many times I had gone through that album? My head reeled with this new information.
I rushed to my mother with the album, declaring, “See, I am the only black boy in the class!” She slowly looked up from the book she was reading and said, “Yes”, sardonically as she took off her reading glasses. I’m sure in her mind she was wondering when that qualified to become headline news. Clearly, she was waiting for an explanation.
“I – I – I didn’t know I was the only black person in the class?” I stammered.
“Of course you were,” she replied, rather bemused. “And your point is?”
“I really don’t know what my point is,” I said, “but I am stunned that it took me more than 30 years to notice this.”
She just shrugged.
Slowly, it began to come together.
In the few months I had been in Los Angeles, I had been sucked into the paradigm of the racial divide. Communities are segregated by color and race. Your blackness can be determined by which side of the I-10 or I-405 freeways you live on. People can be described as being ‘not black enough’ if they do not conform to the unwritten code of ‘African-American-ness’. – a code, which in my understanding can be distilled to an attachment to the slave identity and a staunch repudiation of what the ‘white man’ represents. President Obama had to fight that label during his campaign to garner the votes of some African Americans who thought he did not represent their idea of an African-American. He was biracial and the son of an African, not the descendant of an African slave. He also did not proclaim his blackness or speak against white-on-black injustice – instead, he seemed fit comfortably in the mainstream. He was no Martin Luther King Jr. or Jesse Jackson. Not black enough.
Before Los Angeles, I had never noticed the ratio of Caucasians to minorities represented on television or in movies. I had never noticed the roles that minorities typically played in movies. But being among African-Americans, I had that pointed out to me more than a few times. I do not label this not noticing as a good or a bad thing – it was just a result of my personal experience. Living in Europe, it was not unusual that there would be more Caucasians anywhere I went – I was in Europe. Living in Ghana, of course there would be more black people, period. And I was never made to feel like I was different in any way – not by my family and not by the people I associated with. Everyone was just another human being to me.
So with the fervour of the idealist in me, I became something of a black activist by default in my adopted home and eventually went to work for the Greater Los Angeles African American Chamber of Commerce. I also began a newsletter for a men’s discussion group and got into an editorial dispute because one of the contributors was not black. I began to realise that my black experience was very different from the black experience of someone who grew up in South Central LA. I was not one of them just by reason of being black. And this fact was made abundantly clear to me in a discussion where I was making a point about black people moving beyond slavery and being victims of an unjust system to a place of self-direction and self-actualization; a place where there is a true emancipation from blaming someone else (reference: the white man) for all one’s woes; a place where life is lived without the crutch of victimhood. “You don’t understand; you can’t understand – you’re not from here!” was the response.
Ouch. Very ouch.
But it wasn’t about me. It was about race versus culture.
No, I’m not from here. I’m not the descendant of slaves. I didn’t grow up in the projects or in South Central. I did not have my blackness highlighted as a difference – good or bad – so that I became conscious of it every waking moment. I was never told that it would be difficult to succeed in a white world. Or that I had to try harder because I was black. I did not face the unnerving possibility of being in jail before my 21st birthday. (But I do realise I still could be pulled over by the cops for DWB – Driving While Black).
No. That is not my experience and I don’t presume to know how it feels like. But I too have experienced racism. Living in Moscow, I heard the taunts from across the street: “Abezian”, (meaning ‘monkey’), “Uncle Ben’s” and “Snickers” were the usual ones. My favourite story takes place on the bus, where a Muscovite woman asking me a question as she raises her head stops mid-sentence when she realises that she’s speaking with a black man. Getting off the crowded bus, she tries to squeeze past me without any part of her clothes – or heaven forbid, her skin – touching me. But I put that down to ignorance and fear. Just like any other prejudice.
But I do know one thing: the only way to make colour a non- issue is by not playing it up – or down. By harping on the colour of one’s skin – negatively, or, even, positively – focuses on differences, not on equality. Now this does not mean ignoring the fact of skin colour, but it means keeping the issue of skin colour in context; not painting it as an obstacle to overcome or an advantage to have. An excellent starting point for the discussion on skin colour and our perceptions of it is “The Black Body”, an enlightening anthology of 30 essays by black, white and bi-racial contributors edited by Meri Nana Ama Danquah. I highly recommend it.
Growing up, my parents didn’t expect me to better because I was black, but I HAD to excel just because. That was what was expected of me. I was taught that black is beautiful, but so is white or brown or yellow. French was my first language, but I also learned to speak not just English, but also Ga, my native language and Twi and Fanti…I eventually went on to learn Russian! (Don’t ask me why!) The focus was less on racial differences and more on cultural plurality.
As a youngster, I was immersed in the traditional and cultural practices of my people in Ghana. I learned to read and write in Ga at the same time that I was learning about the Mayfair, the Indians, the Star Spangled banner and the Boston Tea party at school. I became an expert native dancer, fluent in the intricate footwork and bodywork of various dances of different tribes including the Adowa, the Damba, the Gota, the Gahu and the Kpanlogo dances. I learned to love my ‘primitive’ native culture as well as those of far-flung places around the world.
You see, in my mind, a person’s colour should not provide any advantages or disadvantages for a person’s trajectory in life. But I am not as naïve as to think that the reality is not just the opposite. Racism – both subtle and overt – is a fact of life in many parts of the world. But aren’t we all – perceived victims and perceived oppressors – complicit in perpetrating this problem? Aren’t we all fanning the flames while all the time blaming the other side for creating or maintaining the problem for self-serving purposes? Many Americans and, indeed, the world rejoiced at the election of Barack Obama as the President of ‘the free world’. For many people of a somewhat liberal persuasion, if Americans could elect a person of direct African descent, it pointed to the hope of a post-racial world.
But not so fast.
We didn’t become a post-racial society just because a non-Caucasian was elected to the highest office in the land. But I strongly believe that we’re headed in that direction and we can get there. Maybe not in my lifetime, but we most definitely can and will.
Yes, we can. But not without hard work.
Yes, we can. But not through affirmative action or handouts.
Yes, we can. But not with pant-sagging, gun-toting, rapping images.
Yes, we can. But not without a proper education and the mindset to succeed.
Yes, we can. But without clinging on to the baggage of slavery and the crutch of victimization.
We can’t go on expecting the other side to mercifully give us a hand just because their great- great- great-grandfathers made slaves of our great- great- great-grandfathers and grandmothers. We can only be slaves if we make ourselves slaves. The world was never meant to be a fair place. Some people are born with a sliver spoon in their mouths, others with a gold spoon, and still others with none at all. And Bill Cosby said it best in his NAACP keynote address when he said: “It’s not what they’re doing to us. It’s what we’re not doing.”
I wish black people would take a cue from Mr. Obama. He is smart, well-read, successful (are you kidding), and to the world is a great husband and father. It doesn’t hurt that he’s easy on the eye. And he makes no apologies for it. It is impossible that he has not had to overcome obstacles in his life because of his colour, but that did not stop him from becoming President. As President, he is assailed from all sides with a mixture of envy and the sour grapes syndrome regarding his health reform plan and, most recently with his award of the Nobel Peace prize. It has been suggested that there is a subtle underlying theme of racism going on, but never has he once flashed the ‘race card’. Maybe it’s because he’s not black.
But that’s exactly my point! He’s not white either!
He refuses to be colour-coded or type-cast because he does not define himself by his colour or his race. When he was faced with the scandal of his longtime African-American fire-and-brimstone pastor who made many incendiary and divisive comments, he adeptly side-stepped the issue with one of his best addresses ‘A More Perfect Union’, which disappointed many people because it did not attack one group or the other. On showing the final draft to his speechwriter Jon Favreau, the latter said: “That is why you should be President”. Indeed, that speech is thought my many, including The New Yorker, to have been pivotal in his winning the elections.
It all boils down to this: to achieve a post-racial world, we must all be willing and able to hold two opposing thoughts and still make sense. We must be able to celebrate our culture, values and colour even as we celebrate those of others.
So I finally figured out how it was that in 2004 I finally came to the realization that I was the only black person in my 1976 class photograph (oh dear! Now I date myself…). I daresay I was the coolest of the bunch. As the Ghanaians say, I was ‘sugared’ – poised, showing my good angle, photo-shoot pose and ready for my close-up. But the reason for that deserves another story…..
It took me almost 30 years to notice this not because I was colour-blind, or was raised that way, but because my blackness had absolutely nothing to do with how intelligent, or good-looking, or successful I would be. My race was never an issue – what was gently, but very firmly imprinted in my psyche was an incredibly deep appreciation for diversity of culture. For this I thank James Glover of blessed memory, and Diana Elsie. Because of them I came to define myself by who I am, not by what I am. In terms of my black identity, I can only be black because of the existence of white, brown and yellow.