What Does It Mean To Black, White, or Other?

Steve Martin with his black family in The Jerk
Steve Martin with his black family in The Jerk

Thank you Rachel Dolezal for giving me something to write about! Whew! I was going through some serious writer’s block.

I had a bit of fun on Facebook by referencing my potato-salad-making, dance and, basketball skills as bona fide evidence of my blackness. For the record, I make one hell of a potato salad but I can’t dance or play basketball to save my life. Those aren’t the only black stereotypes that I don’t measure up to but I’ll stop there.

The inspiration for the post was not meant to make light of Dolezal’s situation but to poke fun at my near translucent skin tone and the constant questioning of my racial heritage. My friend Melanie (also a very light black American) commented on the post by saying that she was irritated by people tagging her in all of the Dolezal memes in obvious attempts to make fun of her hue. I am neither here to condemn or defend Rachel Dolezal, but to embrace a national intellectual conversation on the matter. I enjoyed the multiple conversations and reports that attempted to understand Dolezal’s position that she “identifies as black.”

Black folks’ struggle with skin tone, and to the same degree hair texture, has been family dirty laundry since slavery. And because of slavery and colonization around the globe, descendants of African people come in all flavors and colors. Just listen to my man Redd Foxx:  

It is difficult these days to define “blackness” by skin tone alone. And if not skin tone, then what?

What it means to be black, and in particular a black American, has been captured by writers, poets, photographers, musicians and others for decades. It’s the pain in a fair-skinned Billie Holiday’s voice on “Strange Fruit”; the fiery speeches of a high-yellow Malcom X; and the crystal clear camera lens of a chocolatey Gordon Parks. They all captured parts of our cultural experience and the suffrage of our ancestors and communities.

I heard Allyson Hobbs, Assistant Professor of History at Stanford and author of “A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in America”, say on the public radio program The Takeaway that racial identification is indeed cultural. When asked if race was biological or cultural, she, without hesitation, answered “absolutely not biological, absolutely cultural. It’s a complete social construct.” Makes sense to me.

There is real anger out there for Dolezal and her perceived chicanery. Some say it is because she was deceitful; others say she stole a job rightfully belonging to someone more worthy. But it’s deeper than that. It’s about the culture. It’s about her not inheriting the culture. It’s about her not experiencing and inheriting the suffrage. And it’s about her not experiencing and inheriting the joys and pride of great accomplishment in the face of near annihilation.  If Dolezal decided tomorrow that she no longer wished to “identify” as black, she could do so without skipping a beat. And that pisses people off. Her situation opens old wounds of cultural appropriation and, to many, she appears to be every bit the culture bandit. She has the safety net of “white privilege” to catch her, should she teeter, and that’s a privilege that black folk just don’t have. She hasn’t earned her “blackness”.

I am not angry a Dolezal. But I also don’t buy her explanation that she has always identified as black.. She simply lacks the bona fides.  I believe that Navin R. Johnson, the fictional character Steve Martin played in the 1979 film The Jerk, was more black than Dolezal will ever be. He, after all, was raised black and she was not.

Despite my fair skin (damn near white in the deepness of winter), you can’t take away my experience as a black man. My bona fides run too deep both biologically and culturally.

The head of the local NAACP here in Syracuse said, in an interview with one of my reporters, that he was willing to accept Dolezal for who she says she is. “If the girl wanted to be a sister, then she’s a sister.”  Son, you don’t even want to go there. What it means to be a sistuh, a black woman in America, is whole different ball of wax.

The Devil Made Me Do It

Flip Wilson
Flip Wilson

On this final day of Black History month I choose to stay true to my nature as a contrarian and not highlight a popular figure torn from the pages of black history text books. Instead, my choice is a very personal one.

As a very young boy, around age 5, my family would gather around the television to watch two shows in particular – Rowan & Martin’s “Laugh-In” and “The Flip Wilson Show” starring comedian Flip Wilson.  At 5 years of age, I obviously had no clue as to the historical significance of this funny black man, Flip Wilson, on our television screen.  All I knew then was that it was family time and Flip was gut-busting funny.  My brother Roland and I would get quite the kick out of imitating Wilson’s various characters and we couldn’t resist saying “the devil made me do it” before going to bed.

Wilson's popular character Geraldine
Wilson’s popular character Geraldine

Wilson’s hour-long variety show aired from 1970-74 and is credited with being one of the first television programs starring a black person as lead to become highly successful among a white audience.  While the “Nat King Cole Show” was the first to feature a black lead, Wilson’s show achieved the kind of success that Cole’s show could not.  Certainly not because of a talent deficiency but because advertisers were afraid to sponsor the program.  At its height, The Flip Wilson Show had around 40 million weekly viewers.  Nearly double that of Seinfeld. 

Robert Thompson, Director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture and Trustee Professor of Television Radio & Film at the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University says that “Flip Wilson is one of the three most important pioneers in the integration of television during its first generation. Nat King Cole hosted his own show in the 1950s with an elegance and dignity that provided a little antidote to the likes of Amos ‘N’ Andy and Beulah, which had aired just a few years earlier; Bill Cosby starred in both a drama (I SPY) and a sitcom (The Bill Cosby Show) in the 1960s; but Flip Wilson’s show engaged a level of ratings and national popularity that topped them all.”

Wilson’s trail-blazing efforts were not without discomfort and criticism, particularly from black folk. At a time when few African Americans, if any, were seen on television, Wilson’s most popular character Geraldine caused a stir among some in the black community who accused Wilson of causing detrimental harm to the image of black masculinity. Thompson remembers, “Some people were disturbed that, of all the characters Filp Wilson portrayed on his show, “Geraldine” was far and away the most popular. Some argued that having one of the few black males on television spending a portion of each show in a dress was problematic on a number of levels.” Of Wilson’s many contributions, Thompson noted, ” He provided a showcase for black musicians that, over the run of the show, provided an important anthology of performances by Lena Horne, Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson (in one of her last performances), Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, James Brown, and lots more.” Clearly a man devoted to providing a platform seeking wider recognition for talented black performers in need of increased exposure.

Geraldine Jones was indeed problematic for Wilson who described her as, “honest, frank, and affectionate…Geraldine is liberated, that’s where that’s at.” Wilson, a talented and serious stand-up comedian, struggled to rise above the popularity of Geraldine Jones. A struggle that I learned later after watching HBO’s documentary Mo Funny: Black Comedy in America. He vowed to friends and fellow comedians to not let Geraldine eclipse him.

I was not concerned with such issues as black masculinity as a young boy. All I knew at the time was that Flip Wilson was funny and that Geraldine was funny and they both brought me great joy. The joy of laughter. The joy of family togetherness. And an understanding, even at such a young age, that a black cat, Flip Wilson, a man who I though resembled my dad, was on the tv doing stuff that I’d seen no other black man do.  And for that I salute him.