It's Black History Month, folks. Today, renegade though it may be to some, my focus is on the peculiarities I'm observing in this 2008 U.S. presidential election season. I'll begin with a fact that may not be obvious to some observers, and the farther one is from the U.S. and our history the less obvious this fact will be. Let's call it Fact 1:
Come November, U.S. voters, after well over two centuries, still will not elect to the presidency a Black person who is the descendant of "we the people" who were enslaved not long ago in the U.S.A. These descendants are the Black American people, the group of Blacks whom Kenyan historian Ali Mazrui somehow has come to deem "undefinable" or "unmentionable", or who somehow should not be singled out n view of our long historical existence, lest in some way we might be seen as an "elite." That is his term, not mine. The other side of this issue is the current possibilitiy of electing someone to become the first Black president of a country - in this case the United States - but a person who in fact does not come from the indigenous Black population of said country. We'll call this Fact 2. Or as Mr. Mazrui informed all of us during the January symposium which was supposed to be about Blacks and abolition of the U.S. slave trade, the United States may beat Kenya by electing the first "Luo" president. Apparently Luo is the name of the Kenyan ethnic group Barack Obama's late father belonged to. Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga is a Luo also, hence the inside joke, though not to Americans in general or to Black Americans in particular. ...
It has now been about three weeks since the forum on the 1808 U.S. abolition of the slave trade. This is where Kenyan Swahili historian Ali Mazrui accused me, humble authoress of this blog, of, I think his words were: "trying to create a black elite." I looked up "elite" in an online dictionary, and hope Mazrui's words are preserved on the U.S. National Archives' own video of the event. He declared me 'guilty' (not his term but definitely his intent) of attempting to create this "elite" in my mere propensity to talk about my experience and my identity - family, community, cultural and historical - as a Black American. Well, now it is February and thus *officially*, woo hoo, Black History Month and I am allowed. BHM was started as Negro History Week by another Black American, Dr. Carter G. Woodson. My mother talks about meeting Dr. Woodson when she was a child and he would visit her elementary school here in Washington, DC. Dr. Woodson was from the Black Woodson family of Virginia, and certainly also was related to Virginia's White Woodsons, too. Like far too many White Americans right up to today, the White Woodsons may still be insisting on denying the blood connection. As the folks from Gaza crushing the wall separating them from food in Egypt, I am bypassing Ali Mazrui's unsolicited and recently constructed checkpoint and granting "permission" to my 'little cullud self' to feel, think, speak and write about my Black American people and our country, the USA. When Black Americans speak, and especially during Black History Month, most of us want to talk about all of our U.S. history, and not limited to the few dismembered, isolated 'glorious' parts visited by so many Americans in limited public discourse.
The other part of this making me catch my breath in this election season is the deep unwillingness to talk about Facts 1 and 2 and their real and potential meanings. In Al Gore-speak it has become evident that few other truths are more inconvenient than these, but guess what folks; they are the facts. These issues could and should be discussed intelligently, but so far are not, a) among Black Americans ourselves, b) among Black people who are U.S. nationals but from other national, and thus other ethnic, backgrounds; and c) in the general American population. These are three distinct levels of discussion. There should be, but generally is not, a broader international discussion that should include Black Americans representing opposing views on the implications of Facts 1 and 2. There are implications, for U.S. life and politics, and particularly for the Black American ethnic population of the United States. International discussions taking place now about these issues usually are not including any ethnic Black Americans. In fact, there is a widespread tendency wherein certain Blacks say they speak as "Black Americans" when in fact their own backgrounds are from societies outside the United States and thus outside the Black American community. So few Black Americans are in residence outside the U.S.A. that most of us are not aware is is going on, although it is blatantly dishonest. There are also other types of attempts to avoid, thwart, halt and demean this critical discussion which amount to both censorship and self-censorship. Most of these attempts to limit free speech are not being reported in the press, neither, as far as I can tell, are they reported in any ethnic Black press in the U.S. or elsewhere, nor in the "mainstream" press.
In the United States being enslaved was totally about parentage - Black (and early on sometimes American Indian) parentage. Specifically it was about your mother, not your father. Our slave or free status was determined by our mother's race. If she was Black, then from before birth you too were enslaved. If your mother was White, well, even that didn't make you "white", but you were supposed to born free, or at least in theory you were. Usually it made you a free Black or free colored or free mulatto or free person of color. As a Black woman in slavery, sadly, the odds were quite high that at least some of "your children" (read: someone else's chattel property) would be "fathered" by one or more white men. That's the nice way of describing sexual assault, sexual exploitation and human breeding. But 99 per cent of the time when it came to Black children whose real fathers were white, the label of "paternity" was biological and genetic only. In fact, by law where white men availed themselves of sexual access to Black girls and women, there was no paternity in question. In fact, I am fairly certain that even those few white men who may have wanted to have their names listed as the father of their own children were prohibited by law from doing so. There is a direct link through history in the U.S. - and in the Americas - to so many white male politicians today making their institutionally hypocritical quasi-moral political pronouncements about children "needing to be born inside marriage." What a great idea! The first book published in the United States by a Black American was about this very theme of "White Daddyhood." This book is Clotel or the President's Daughter, written by Charles Chestnutt. Charles Chestnutt's photo will soon be published on a U.S. postage stamp. As soon as you see his face you will realise that this man knew whereof he wrote. Over a dozen generations, give or take a few, Black Americans have often had "fathers" who were white males, men such as a U.S. president or state legislator; a local bigshot and other public and private figures.
In spite of all this and our national history right up to the present, perhaps no U.S. political party considers significant any of these facts - facts which are central, not marginal, to the history of Black Americans. I also realise that more than a few Black Americans and other Blacks have easily declared the same. But what do most of us, the actual descendants of the enslaved ourselves, say about these issues? I can and will speak anecdotally, but collectively we really don't know. We don't know because no one is hosting the rational, intelligent debates on the matter within the Black American community; and no one has polled Black Americans on this issue. The bottom line, however, is that just declaring that Facts 1 and 2 are "insignificant" to the national political present and future does not actually make them so.