What the Birthers' Obsessions Say About Identity in America
Remember when the media regularly asked if Barack Obama was “black enough” to get the support of African-Americans? In 2007 pundits wondered if a black-identified but technically biracial candidate who came of age in the post–civil rights era, was raised far from traditional African-American communities, was educated in the Ivy League and boasted a foreign name might be more palatable to white voters than black ones. Today this query seems hopelessly naïve and endearingly optimistic about the fluidity of American racial identities. After the secret-Muslim accusations, the witch doctor posters, the “You lie!” shout-down and the chimpanzee e-mails—it is clear that President Obama is certainly “black enough” to experience both racially motivated public attacks and exceptional support among racial minorities.
But the tenacity of the birther movement has revived the issue of Obama’s blackness for me. Nearly a quarter of Americans, most of them white, believe President Obama was not born in the United States. The resilience of the birther myth—lately given air by Donald Trump—has even forced the White House to post a copy of Obama’s birth certificate online in hopes of settling the matter once and for all. Good luck—this controversy isn’t about documentation; it’s about deeply held beliefs, even faith claims, about who is and is not a legitimate citizen.
Many on the left say that birtherism is just racism, but there’s more than simple racial animus behind it. I suspect that part of the problem is that Obama is indeed not black enough; specifically, the president is not sufficiently Negro—the historical variation of blackness that is uniquely and indisputably American.
The American slave system disrupted the ability of enslaved Africans to retain or pass along their ethnic identities. Igbo, Ashanti, Akan, Yoruba and Hausa became interchangeable units for sale. While slaves nurtured fragments of cultural, religious and familial traditions, much of the specificity of their African experience was surrendered to an imagined and indistinct notion of “Africa.” Moreover, the law did not initially recognize slaves or their US-born children as American. So enslaved Africans were women and men literally without a country, defined solely in terms of their labor value. Their descendants eventually achieved citizenship, but to be an American black, a Negro, is to be a rejected child who nonetheless clings to her abusive father because she knows no other parent. To be a black American descended from slaves is to lack, if not a birth certificate, then at least a known genealogy—to have only a vague sense of where one comes from, of who one’s ancestors were and of where one belongs.
In this sense, Obama is not very black. He is not a Negro. As a black man, President Obama’s confident and clear knowledge of his lineage is precisely the thing that makes his American identity dubious. Unlike most black people, he has easy access to both his American and his African selves.
In 1897 W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, “One feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” Although Obama is the child of a black African and a white American, one does not sense this unreconciled two-ness in him. He confidently embraces a triumphant American narrative that echoes the tone of voluntary immigrants more than the pathos of the dominated.
Compare Obama’s Dreams From My Father with Michelle Robinson’s senior thesis. The First Lady reflected a Du Bois–like struggle with being the outsider within. She wrote, “My experiences at Princeton have made me far more aware of my ‘Blackness’ than ever before. I have found that at Princeton…I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus; as if I really don’t belong.” Whatever racial invectives have been hurled at Michelle, they have never included a claim against her American identity. Her familial lineage in slavery, the Great Migration and Chicago’s South Side are far too emblematic of American blackness to raise suspicions about her country of birth.
But in another sense, birtherism is the dual-edged blade of African identity for black Americans. In the eighteenth century, choosing the designation “African” was a symbol of self-determination. For example, the Free African Society, founded in Philadelphia in 1787, and its religious offspring, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, were founded in the spirit of defiance of slavery and racial inequality. Later, emigrationist movements led by Paul Cuffee and Marcus Garvey offered physical and psychic return to Africa as an alternative to the horrors of American racism. These efforts reflected black people’s rejection of the idea that they are a people without a place. No one can find the country of “Negro” on a map, but the continent of Africa, no matter how remote after centuries of disconnect, is a real place. To claim it was to recognize one’s humanity.
But black people have also found it troubling to call Africa home. Emphasizing African identity can mean relinquishing hard-earned affirmations of Americanness. The Negro was made an American through the sin of slavery but kept this identity through the sacrifices of citizenship: taxes, military duty, labor, effort, patriotism and struggle. Few acts of racism elicit more disgust among black folks descended from eighteenth-century slaves than being told to “go back to Africa” by a white person whose American heritage goes back only to the twentieth century.
When birthers accuse President Obama of not having a “real” birth certificate, they’re telling him to “go back to Africa.” It’s a taunt he’s able to dismiss because he knows exactly where and when he’s from. But for black Americans descended from slaves, to question one’s birth raises perhaps a more troublesome enigma: to be born in servitude to someone, but from nowhere.