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Monday, January 25, 2021

Sen. Harris and Black identity

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“Black African Booty Scratcher!” When I was a child, my friends and I hurled that disgusting phrase at kids who we wanted to completely demoralize — laughing as we did. Though I didn’t understand it at the time, that phrase was much more than an off-handed epithet; it was a thundering denunciation.

Throughout history, we have been conditioned to think of Africa as a backward, uncivilized dystopia of tribalism, corruption and poverty (moral and financial). We were taught that God sent white men to “civilize the Dark Continent.”

To my juvenile mind, to be African was to be a miscreant. Sub-human. Animalistic. It was perhaps the only thing worse than being a “n****r.” When we called someone a “Black African Booty Scratcher,” we intended to be as hurtful and demeaning as possible. We intended to “kill” our target psychologically. This impulse sprouted from the internalized racism to which Black people have always been subject.

I thought about these tropes in relation to Sen. Kamala Harris’ racial heritage being dissected before and after former Vice President Joe Biden selected her to be his running mate. Immediately — and inevitably — Harris’ racial lineage became an issue. Her late mother was born in India. Her father was born in Jamaica. They met at Berkeley while pursuing doctoral degrees. They fell in love with each other — and the Civil Rights Movement. Harris has said that her Indian mother “raised (her) to be a strong Black woman.”

Despite Harris’ pride in being Black, I have seen instance after instance of our people questioning her racial identity. In the ever-evolving and deeply-conflicted vortex of intra-racial politics, condemnation for being “too Black” (i.e. African-like) competes with the charge of … not being “Black enough” (i.e. “inauthentic”). These opposing extremes are not uniform in their application. That is, the embracing of Africa has been popular in some quarters for decades, whereas the desire to be “light, bright, and damn near white” has been preferred in others. Self-hatred is a b***h.

The perverse nature of this reality is evident in the fact that Harris’ Black critics offer the same argument that white supremacists like Rush Limbaugh do, namely that her “Blackness” is suspect. Strangely, this is the inverse of what happened during slave auctions. Specifically, slave traders would boast about stolen Black bodies being from “pure African stock” while they were being evaluated as if they were cattle. (To have been less than “pure African” was, quite literally, to be devalued.) Saying that Harris isn’t “Black enough” does not extol our race; it debases it. 

Last fall I wrote a column titled “Blacker Than Thou.” My final paragraph was as follows: “There is no greater threat to collective progress than internal dissension. In this case, the issue is who gets to decide what ‘authentic Blackness’ is. … (That) debate is not new. Neither the hanging of Sankofa images in our homes, nor the wearing of afros and dashikis (or American-style suits and dresses) will attenuate these divisions. For us to advance as a people, it is crucial both to acknowledge these deeply-held differences and to carefully — and respectfully — navigate them. We do not need to agree on individual identities to agree on collective outcomes.” This remains the sad truth.

Internalized racism is so insidious that it eats Black folks from the inside out. Its corrosive effects have caused us to straighten our hair, alter our speech, change the appearance of our eyes, “pass” as white and — in the ultimate act of mental trauma — lighten our skin. These are aspects of what Dr. Joy DeGruy has accurately identified as “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.”

As the legendary Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston observed, “People can be slave-ships in shoes.” Candace Owens’ parents were born in the U.S. So were Clarence Thomas’. Yet, in the ever-witty vernacular of Black folks, neither Owens nor Thomas would be invited to the proverbial “Black cookout.” By contrast, Black nationalist Marcus Garvey — like Senator Harris’ father — was born in Jamaica. And both of freedom fighter Shirley Chisolm’s parents were immigrants. Yet, no sane person would question whether either Garvey or Chisolm earned their “Black card.” The place where we or our parents were born does not determine whether we are “sufficiently” Black; where our heart resides does.

Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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