The presidential hopeful knew the comment was coming.
“There are African-Americans who don’t think you’re black enough, who don’t think you’ve had the required experience,” said the white journalist, trailing off before he could define “the required experience.” In a voiceover, he’d already mentioned that the politician was “not a descendant of slaves,” as if that fact automatically impugns black authenticity.
The candidate gave a slight, weary smile and responded, “I am rooted in the African-American community, but I’m not defined by it. I am comfortable in my racial identity, but that’s not all I am.”
That exchange is from a 2007 “60 Minutes” segment with Barack Obama, the son of a Kenyan father and a white American mother. Now Senator Kamala Harris, daughter of a Jamaican father and Tamil Indian mother, is being subjected to the same inane racial purity questions.
During her appearance last week on “The Breakfast Club,” a popular New York-based morning radio show, Harris, a Democratic presidential candidate, was asked by co-host Charlamagne tha God how she deals with those who question “the legitimacy of your blackness.”
A Howard University alum, Harris used historically black colleges and universities to make her point. “I think they don’t understand who black people are — because if you do, if you walked on Hampton’s campus or Howard’s campus or Morehouse or Spelman or Fisk, you would have a much better appreciation for the diaspora, the diversity, for the beauty in the diversity of who we are as black people,” she said. “So I’m not going to spend my time trying to educate people about who black people are.”
That interview crashed the voracious news cycle when Harris said she smoked weed while listening to Snoop Dogg and Tupac in college. Right-wing yappers and side-eying black folks quickly jumped to discredit Harris. She graduated from college in the mid-1980s, while these hip-hop icons didn’t drop their debut albums until the 1990s.
Cue the faux controversy, and claims that Harris is trying to burnish her black bona fides.
“Maybe the joint Harris had smoked left her so high that she was transported to a moment in the future where she heard the music of Snoop and Tupac before they even did,” wrote Elijah C. Watson on Okayplayer, an influential urban music and culture website. Still, he generally dismissed the brouhaha as something that shouldn’t “be taken seriously.”
Yet here we are — again — embroiled in another pointless debate about who is and isn’t black enough.
Decades ago, a group of Black Panthers marched down my block, right in front of my family’s home. I ran off our porch to get a closer look. One of them called me “young sister,” and handed me a cloth patch. Embroidered in black-power red, black, and green were the words, “Am I Black Enough for You?” Rather than fight it, my mother bought me Army fatigues and sewed the patch on the knee, which I proudly wore to school as often as possible.
As a bookish black girl who liked stamp collecting, Greek mythology, and the Marx Brothers, I felt compelled to conceal parts of myself that, compared with my friends, would not have been considered as sufficiently black. For me, that patch wasn’t posing a question; it became a challenge to anyone who tried to define, usually in the most myopic ways possible, who I could be. What I hear from Harris is what I heard from Obama: My blackness is my own, free from anyone else’s expectations or qualifications.
There is no monolithic way to be black. Such attacks on Harris are idiotic when there are real and serious policy issues to be discussed. In America, blackness is demonized, but for black candidates it’s also used as an arbitrary measure of realness versus pandering. It’s concern trolling meant to derail black achievement.
Frankly, it’s even worse when black people do it to each other, playing into the most limited notions of what it means to be black. It’s yet another unpassable purity test, not unlike the so-called birthers who sought to undermine Obama’s citizenship.
As black people, we all have our stories to tell, some more complex than others. None are more authentically black.
“I’m black, and I’m proud of being black,” Harris said on “The Breakfast Club,” and I hope it’s the last time she’ll engage this pointless discussion. “I was born black. I will die black, and I’m not going to make excuses for anybody because they don’t understand.”
I already have many questions about whether Harris, a former San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general, should become the next president of the United States. Whether or not she is “black enough” will never be one of them.Renée Graham can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.