Really, Am I Black Enough For You?

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( I am always suspicious when someone asks, “May, I ask you a question?” So, I hope it is understandable when a caller into the blog talk radio show “Who Did It To You?” issued that specific request that I prepared for the worst. It has been my experience that the cryptic “May, I ask you a question?” is merely the calm before a violent storm of inappropriateness, rudeness, and nothingness.

Nonetheless, here I was giving a faceless caller an opening to ask something that was apparently important to her.

The alluded to question follows.

Dr. Jones, can I ask you a question? Are you white or are you married to a white woman? Some of the things that you say and how you speak makes me think that you are either a white man or you are married to a white woman.

A steely silence ensued between me, the caller, and the other co-hosts, Sister Pamela Muhammad and Brother Maurice Muhammad. This cadre of committed individuals had been together for approximately five years.

The answer to her intrusive question was a resounding “No, I am neither a white man nor am I married to a white woman.” The simple answer of “NO” did nothing to settle the underlying issues associated with the question. The question has remained stuck in my mind for a host of reasons. Those who know me best realize that when I squint my eyes and fall into a silence that my mind is busy; I am sure that you understand that this question made my mind extremely busy.

My very soul wanted to know what was it about me, an African-American Studies Professor who works at a Historically Black University and has mentored Black and Brown students for decades, that would provoke such a question. I was left with nothing else than the following message to the ancestors, “My God, I have studied and written about Race for the majority of my life. Am I not Black enough for you?”

After much reflection, I settled on the belief that this question lodged in my brain because it cuts to the core of matters such as Race, identity, space, place, and voice. This issue is actually one that I routinely discuss with my closest confidants who are all educated, intelligent, prodigious thinkers, activists, and intellectuals.

When I shared this incident with a trusted colleague, he remarked, “What you are really asking is what exactly is a black man.” He continued, “Sadly, for the vast majority of our people, neither you nor Iare their image of a Black man. They will never publicly admit it, however, they have a discernible probem with the type of men that we are. Our very essence is discounted and therefore disrespected by them. You’re too well read, too well traveled, and too considerate to fit into their archaic understanding of manhood. I know people who hate our kind solely because of our ability to navigate our way through the pernicious snares and traps that White America places in front of us.”

Although I wanted to refute these assertions, I could not mount a reasonable defense as significant portions of my life has been ridiculed by black folk whose understanding of blackness was the antithesis of my existence. In the world that they lived, my blackness was compromised by the love for reading, thinking, writing, and orchestrating a life plan for success. I have always avoided drinking, drugs, and other street culture as I have never seen any of it amount to anything positive.

It was not until I left my small hometown and attended The Ohio State University did I learn that I was not alone in the intra-racial struggle to simply “be” who God created me to be. This struggle has fostered a kinship among the vast majority of scholastically trained and professionally successful Blacks.

During a commencement address at Howard University, then President Barack Hussein Obama posited the following,

Be confident in your blackness, there is no one way to be black…There’s no straightjacket, there’s no constraints, there’s no litmus test for authenticity.

I pondered President Obama’s words in the wake of the intrusive question issued on Who Did It To You? and it has not been a fruitful moment for my mind. I have grown more disconcerted by the sub-discourse that the question communicates. My pondering has led me to understand that if my blackness is repugnant to significant sections of Black America, the vast majority of black intellectuals (Malcolm X, Paul Robeson, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, James Baldwin, Diane Nash, W.E.B. Du Bois, Maria Stewart, Huey P. Newton, Fred Hampton, David Walker, Ella Baker, and a host of others) would be rejected and ostracized by today’s black community that they worked so diligently to uplift.

The irony of this situation is that I disagree with President Obama’s assertion that “…there’s no litmus test for (blackness).” Although there is much room to argue about the validity of an appropriate measure for blackness, there has to be some understanding of what blackness is and what blackness isn’t.

I have always been a quiet, painfully shy person who prefers a good book or jazz recording to interaction with others. I rarely, if ever, participated in what I deemed negative social activities that so many of my peers bonded over; the realization that I did not belong among such people have accompanied like a shadow. Even as a teen discovering what it means to be a Black man in White America, I considered it ludicrous that demands I substantiate my “blackness” always emanated from the worst segments of Black America.

I never responded to such stupidity because I understood that my value system was conflicted with their infantile racial constructs. I love to read, an activity that is anathema to the vast majority of my peers, I loved school and the opportunity to learn, many of my peers abhorred education so much that they desperately sought escape hatches from what I considered a worthy cause. Making their demands more ridiculous was the fact that it was I, not them, who was so steeped in black history that the names of Douglass, Okonkwo, Hughes, Baldwin, Cullen, Malcolm, Hampton, Walker, and Baker evoked a radiant smile.

Individuals such as the caller mentioned above use signposts to either validate or invalidate another’s blackness. Unfortunately for the Race, my eloquence when addressing complex racial matters is not a sign of blackness. Nor does the fact that I was groomed from birth to work toward “the liberation and salvation of the black nation” lesson their harsh judgment. I understood long ago that there is nothing I can do to persuade self-appointed gatekeepers of “blackness” from welcoming individuals such as myself into their midst.

In light of the above argument, I am confident that many will consider me a hypocrite for the following. I too question the ‘blackness’ of others on a regular basis. I afford myself such an allowance as my evaluation criterion does not rest on silly cultural peculiarities and anover emphasis on negative behavior. My repudiation is reserved for those who willfully behave in a treasonous manner toward Black America; a figure such as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas or Candace Owens fit the bill, along with deadbeat parents, drug abusers, alcoholics, and heathens.

Having said that, I hope that I’m Black enough for ya. If not, you may need to re-evaluate your litmus test because blackness shows through in more ways than a lil’ bit.

Staff Writer; Dr. James Thomas Jones III

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One may also connect with this brother via TwitterDrJamestJones.