What Obama and Drake Have to Do With Being Black

We're supposedly living in a post-racial society, but these days, "black" is being defined much more narrowly -- and it has nothing to do with one's actual racial heritage. To sell out or keep it real? That is the question.

Getty Images (Illustration)
Getty Images (Illustration)

I’m the son of a black father and a white mother. As a child coming up in the 1980s and ’90s, I immersed myself in hip-hop style and culture, excelled at sports, rocked aerodynamic hairstyles, and spoke in the same florid body language that the older brothers at the local black barbershop were fluent in.

I played basketball fiendishly, and on the asphalt, other black players addressed me without thinking as nigga. Once or twice, some white person referred to me (also without thinking) as a nigger. I was black back then, period.

As I’ve gotten older, however, my clothes have started to fit slimmer and my interests have widened. And I can’t help but notice that I’ve become less black to others. Even before Barack Obama’s election made ours a supposedly “post-racial” society (the one-drop rule is so 20th century), the truth is that the criteria we use to designate someone as acting, or even being black in the post-civil rights/hip-hop-era often has little, sometimes even nothing at all, to do with a person’s actual racial heritage or physical characteristics. Rather, this particular designation is often an assessment of behavioral traits, a judgment of cultural values and a subjective projection of what is “real.”

The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve found it’s at the very margins of race, in the shadowy figure of the mulatto, that the notion of blackness can be most poignantly illuminated. This is because mixed-race blacks–while occupying a position in the culture that is at once privileged and cursed–are the physical incarnation of a racial dilemma that all blacks inevitably must confront: To sell out or keep it real? That is the question.

Consider, for example, two of the most visible mulattoes living and working today: the president himself and the rapper Drake. Both of these men are the direct offspring of black fathers and white mothers. They both proudly define themselves as black. And they both have benefited in large and tangible ways from the fact that much of the rest of the world sees them as such–despite the fact that both were raised mostly by the white sides of their families and in staggeringly un-black settings (Honolulu and Toronto, respectively).

Obama, who has darker skin and rounder features than Drake, looks blacker to my mixed-kid eye. (Drake, who is half-Jewish, looks kind of Sicilian, with thick, bushy eyebrows, a perpetual Fred Flintstone mal razé, and a nose full of character.) Beyond just looking black, though, Obama has, as we all know at this point, also done some significantly black things in his life, such as moving to the South Side of Chicago, working as a community organizer, marrying a dark-skin black woman, joining a passionately black church, raising black children, and publishing Dreams from My Father, a veritable bildungsroman of blackness.

Drake, on the other hand, dropped out of high school and played Jimmy Brooks on the television show Degrassi: The Next Generation before turning his attention to rap. So why, then, has Drake–in spite of his foreign passport (he’s Canadian), TeenNick pedigree and all-around not-very-real upbringing–able to effortlessly ingratiate himself with black America, whereas Obama struggled mightily to convince us to accept him as one of our own? (Think back to the primaries; it was only in victory that Obama became black.)  The answer to this question speaks to one of the most heartbreaking aspects of black life today.

We have been, for a while now, caught up in a vexed zeitgeist in which, for African Americans, racial integrity overwhelmingly equates to embracing the narrow values of the black street culture of the past three decades: hip-hop culture. Or, to put it another way, to be black in a “real” way nowadays is to more closely resemble Jay-Z or Carmelo Anthony than James Baldwin or Thurgood Marshall.