Blackness: A Quick and Dirty Primer

Some people are blacker than others.

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In the The New York Times last Sunday, Jill Nelson dismissed the idea that black people ever really wondered whether Sen. Barack Obama was "black enough." My memory of how Obama was being discussed a year ago is different from Nelson's. Today, however, black people who question Obama's authenticity are indeed a fringe.

So what's that all about? Well, with Obama, it was whether he was committed to the black community's concerns. He was--as a black community organizer in Chicago. And he is, in his commitment to programs on prisoner re-entry and responsible fatherhood.

However, when the question of whether someone is "really black" comes up outside the realm of politics, we tend to lapse into a kind of doubletalk. One ploy is to swat away the issue of blackness as a real quantity. In that case, "What's that all about?" is not so much a query as a rebuke that the question is inappropriate, illogical, or even underhanded.

When Michelle Obama dismissed the question about her husband as "silliness," that was sensible: Barack Obama has proven that he understands black concerns. Too often, though, we are taught that it is "silly" to address blackness as a gradient at all. But this is evasive. We're tiptoeing around something, and it's black culture. Some people are more rooted in it than others – and there isn't a thing wrong with that.

Some say that blackness is simply a matter of color. By this analysis, anyone who raises the larger questions about black identity is apparently visually impaired. Last year, Gwen Ifill, for example, dismissed the question of whether Obama is black enough because someone who, like her, is a child of immigrant blacks might not be considered "black." But I think we all know it's not that simple. The brown-skinned person implying their skin color renders the whole issue moot is leveling a coded challenge: "Are you saying that all black people talk like rappers and eat fried chicken?"

But this implies that there is no such thing as black culture in a legitimate sense. But there is – and it includes Ebonics and chicken!

What is black culture? Definitions will differ. But we can't treat the definition as so "fluid" that it isn't a definition at all. I will toss out a few parameters of what "black" is:

--The dialect: which is not identical to Southern white English, and not just slang, but a sound and a series of grammatical patterns.

--Music: yes, most of hip-hop's listeners are white. But there are proportionally more black people who listen mostly to black music than there are whites who listen mostly to black music.

--Bodily carriage. Culinary tastes. Dress style. Christian commitment. Juneteenth. And yes, skill on the dance floor.

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