What it means to Have a Majority White America Elect a Black President
Can you choose your color today, or must others still do that for you? Can anyone of us with mixed heritage be predominantly called by just one name? More importantly, what does that say about the heritage you choose (or is chosen for you), and the heritage not chosen? It appears to me that regardless of your standing in society, regardless of your accomplishments or natural talents, you still must choose a color – or one will be chosen for you.
I wonder at that. In some ways, this nation has come a long way since Patricia Pinky Johnson, in its day a very controversial film about a young black woman who passes for white. In its day, Pinky was a slang term for light–skinned black Americans. I trust the term as used here is not offensive light to anyone today as I am using same only as historical reference.
The great Lena Horne very much wanted to play the title role in this movie. Ms. Horne, among the most accomplished actresses and singers of all time, (awarded 2 Stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; Recording and Motion Pictures), was considered “light enough” to photograph “white” in the films of that time. However, that time was 1949 and 20th Century Fox felt the movie would not show in most theaters (and for sure none in the South) since love scenes with a white actor were essential to the story. As a historical reference here as well, a “love scene” in the movies back then was an embrace or a kiss lasting more than a second or about what you see Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed do in It‘s a Wonderful Life – indeed, a far cry from what you see Halley Berry and Billy Bob Thornton do in Monster‘s Ball. This was also the main reason Ms Horne lost out on playing “Julie“, a role depicted for a “mulatto” woman in MGM‘s 1951 remake of Show Boat.
In her autobiography, Lena Horne said she photographed so light that MGM was afraid people would mistake her for a white woman, so they had Max Factor (yes, the makeup legend himself) create a make–up line just for her to “appear” as a black woman on screen with black men. For the films where the cast was white, MGM shot her scenes so they could be cut out when the films were shown in the South. Hey now – you don‘t have to like every aspect of US history, but to ignore or deny any part of that history is simply foolish and only serves to condemn us all to repeat its mistakes in one fashion or another (e.g., as in issues today concerning Gay Rights, particularly the rights to marriage).
Indeed, our nation has come a long way since the first showing of “Pinky“. The last US census showed that an increasing number of Americans identify themselves as “multiracial and mixed race” when asked to identify their heritage and an increasing number is expected to have done so in the 2010 census.
Nevertheless, customs and society norms, like any addiction, are very difficult habits to break. The parents of our current President are both white and black, yet the world, as does President Obama, describes himself only as a black man or an American of African decent. I am not attempting to diminish any of the reasons for this choice, but attempting to understand how a focus on “color” continues in this nation today. Perhaps it‘s simply the consequence of an addiction withdrawal.
Consider the original Star Trek TV series (1966–69). If you peel away all the campy silly stuff, the series should be commended in that it Often touched on topics otherwise avoided like the bubonic plaque by all the other shows of its time and those even decades later. As you can imagine, in the late 60‘s, race relations was one such topic.
In one episode in that TV series, two alien characters – each, literally, half black and half white, were at each other‘s throats throughout the hour long episode. Their mutual hatred was so all consuming that it destroyed not only themselves but every soul on their planet. Only near the end did the episode make clear what most people watching the show missed – and thus the purpose of that episode. Those two combating aliens, with their faces exactly half white and black, were mirror images of each other (i.e., their “colors” were on opposite side of their faces).
I‘m inclined to believe our brains are pre–wired to pick out differences in others. It‘s instinctive, something we can‘t help. However, how we treat those perceived “differences” is a learned behavior and, sadly, as world history proves that behavior is most often very appalling.
Looking at a herd of zebras, a lion can‘t tell one zebra from another no more than you and I can. The lion does not even see a white animal with black stripes or a black animal with white stripes. But the lion is pre–wired to look for differences – the slower, the weaker, or that one zebra day-dreaming away from the rest of the herd, i.e., the one that “appears different from the others around them. This ability is essential to the lion‘s survival – its meal ticket. I suspect so too was the same for our common ancestors when it became important for our survival as a species. Like the lion, our brains are pre–wired to perceive differences. Whatever our color was back then, we too had to eat.
As for me, a blind person knowing of my heritage would say I am non–white, while an uninformed sighted person would say I am white. So what color am I? Maybe I‘m a zebra, perhaps we all are and also just as tasty to the lion.
“I was unique in that I was a kind of black that white people could accept. / was their daydream. I had the worst kind of acceptance because it was never for how great / was or what / contributed. It was because of the way I looked.” Wrote Ms. Horne in her biography. I believe we are long past that daydream. I hope she thought so as well before she left us. In regards to race, I believe this nation has crossed the Rubicon. Sure, we can all turn around, look back and focus only at the soiled and bloodied foot prints leading to the river, but cross it we have. It‘s time to move on now, long overdue, and I wonder why we refuse to focus more on that one enormous accomplishment.Leave a comment