Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Plight of the Light-Skinned Black Man: President Obama’s Other Problem

A play. A book. A movie. And a host of disparaging comments against the POTUS has me pondering the plight of the light-skinned Black man in America. 

 As the next election nears, I am taken back to the days following the election of Barack Obama as the first African-American president of the United States when so many of us were caught up in the magic  of the moment—that Change had indeed come. But as much as things have changed, much has remained the same and America’s race problem is colored by its complex relationship with complexion. 

I believe that some of the criticism of Obama’s presidency is cloaked in colorism and sexism--something that we either are not aware of or simply not willing to talk about. But I think looking at the role of color of complexion, and how it relates to our definition of masculinity can explain some our discontent and/or ambivalence to the President. 

I’m amazed at how often we speak about race, but remain mute on issues of color even though there is a color hierarchy in place in America. We talk about racism, but we don’t talk much about its first cousin-colorism. In the book, The Color Complex—The Politics of Skin Color Among African Americans, the authors suggests that skin color bias is not a thing of the past. “Beneath a surface of Black solidarity lies a matrix of attitudes about skin color and features. . .”

Too often any examination of colorism is through the lens of gender and how it relates to women—especially dark-skinned women of color.  Rarely do we discuss the impact of color and those of lighter hues nor do we discuss how it affects men at all. But some recent cultural experiences brought the ideal of colorism and light-skinned men, particularly the President, to the forefront of my mind. 

Yellowman, a play that was the 2002 Pulitzer Prize finalist for drama, examines the color stratifications in the African-American community. It is the story of Eugene and Alma, childhood friends who fall in love but whose relationship is ultimately doomed because of the color caste system embedded in the African-American community. The title takes its cue from Eugene, born to a light-skinned mother and dark-skinned father, and hated by his father because his father thinks Eugene’s complexion gives him an unfair advantage. Color looms large in their relationship and takes a devastating toll on it.

When Obama was poised to be our next president, I remember hearing Radio Personality Tom Joyner joke that light-skinned brothers were back in again. And those of us that understood the inside joke laughed along. But we didn’t discuss his and other comments that can shed light on an issue that has long haunted us. Raised by his white grandparents in Hawaii, and living out the American dream by ascending to the highest office in this nation, President Obama has been naive about race and its implications in America, but has first-hand knowledge now.

I listened to the rhetoric about Obama being ready to be POTUS, and I questioned if we were really ready for him. He was the ideal African-American presidential candidate who had ascended the slippery slope of race and color by being light enough to appeal to white voters while also being black enough to appease black voters. While white America is more accepting of a less menacing looking (darker) Black man, black America needs some sure signs of melanin. Even though the president is bi-racial, his dark brown wife and his adorable daughters made us sigh with relief that he was a “real” black man.

I enjoy reading Black Historical Romance, and while reading Passion’s Furies, I was returned once again to the plight of the light-skinned Black man. In this story, Solomon Dikembe, a wealthy mulatto businessman is charged with insulating Jacinta McIver, a free woman of color, from harm. Jacinta is secretly working with Denmark Vessey’s slave rebellion. Solomon has the means to protect Jacinta and he supports the revolution, but his mixed-race heritage causes Jacinta to distrust him. Though the story is fiction, there are elements that are true even today. There is a level of dislike and distrust in the African-American community for those among us with less melanin in their skin. We both admire and envy them and it’s been that for hundreds years, and the irony of a light-skinned Black man in the Oval Office is not going to change that.

We thought we had the best of both worlds, only to find that old, die-hard feelings around race and color have reared their ugly heads—again! What begin as the perfect picture to the American public has turned against Obama. His none threatening presence the light coloring, intellect, and charisma have turned on him. He is a charlatan and a tool of good old boys network. Cornell West’s tirade surfaced feelings had been dormant. West couched his language in political rhetoric but it was ultimately a sophisticated name calling of Obama as a house Negro alluding to the tension and distrust that has exist among African Americans since miscegenation created the tragic mulatto and all of its deviations.

Those of mixed-race backgrounds or lighter coloring have had advantages since the days of slavery, but it has not come without a price. Many of our leaders and firsts have been fair in complexion carrying the burden of race and color. In The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm shared his conflicted feelings about his complexion—thinking it was a status symbol, but feeling his mother’s pain of being a child of rape and ultimately hating his White heritage, and his father, though dark skinned, was not immune to the effects of colorism. “Father was belligerent toward all the children except me. . .I actually believe that as anti white as my father was, he was subconsciously so afflicted with the white man's brainwashing of Negroes that he inclined to favor the light ones and I was his lightest child."

What role did color play in these relationships? Did Malcolm’s father marry his wife because of her nearness to White? Did Malcolm marry Betty in an effort to dilute his Whiteness? Was color a factor in the marriage of Barack and Michelle? To deny that color does not play a role in our interactions with another is to deny a part of our reality.

We have a racist and sexist perception of what a “real” Black man is, and a light-skinned Black man ain’t it. First of all, as a society we don’t even want to acknowledge Black men as men. We refer to them as boys and/or males. And then when we want a Black man to “man up”, we want him to be the stereotypical Big Scary Black (dark) Man—an image that is unfortunately worldwide. I was reminded of this when I watched the movie, The Intouchables, the story of a quadriplegic, wealthy Frenchman who hires an ex-con as his live-in caretaker. The care-taker character, Driss, is played by a strapping Black man who uses his size and color to intimidate. And as I sat there watching the movie, I wondered what the real caretaker looked like. And at the end of the movie, I was not surprised to see that he was neither Big nor Black, but was actually short, chubby and a person of color, but not identifiably Black. He didn’t fit the stereotype.

The irony of the light-skinned Black man is that he can never be light enough or Black enough to be considered a “real” man. In the case of our President, it is this “otherness” working against him. There was the obsession with his birth certificate, and then there were the finger-pointing incidents with Congressman Joe Wilson and Governor Jan Brewer who reacted to the president in a display of disrespect that would not have happened to a White man in America.

And let’s not forget, Bill Maher’s disappointment that the President is not more “gangster” in his blackness, and that if Obama were “fully black” and not just “half black”, he might be a better president. Comedian DL Hughley said that the President’s intellectual response to matters makes him “closer to being a White kid.” There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground for light-skinned Black men.We either accuse them of being part of the status quo or of  becoming revolutionaries and hooking up with dark sisters to compensate for their pale pigmentation. We don't seem to want to just let them be.

As a teacher, I have seen colorism played out in my classroom. I remember  two light-skinned boys' narratives that stay with me. One felt like he had to fight all the time to prove his worth because he wasn't "man enough" to the other boys. The other student was so moved by a conversation that we had on colorism that his mother called and thanked me. She said she didn't know what I had said to her son, but that whatever it was made a positive impression on him. My students learned that some of the issues they faced were not of their own doing, and our conversations around color gave them permission to be OK with who they were, and that's where we need to be in this country.

 President Obama faces issues of race and color because America has a color problem. And we are all affected by it. Either we are judging or being judged on the superficiality of skin color.