Tuesday, October 11, 2011

"Make it Obama" (updated)

There's a story that I read way back in July 2008 that has been cropping up in my head regularly for the last few days. I don't know why or what's triggered it. But finally I just thought I'd put it out there and see where it goes.

If I remember the context, there was some talk about "post-racial" America and The Root brought in a few young African Americans to write about their experience of what race means to their generation. One of those young people was David Swerdlick, who wanted to talk about "The Audacity of Taupe."


With amazing writing skills and an occasional tongue in cheek, David was talking about the "M" word.

I'm not talking about "multiracial," "miscegenation," "mongrel," "mutt," "mestizo," "masala" or even "Mariah." I'm talking about a word imbued with a legacy of racial strife in America that goes all the way back to the summer day in 1789 that Sally Hemings forgot to lock her bedroom door and runs all the way up to Wentworth Miller getting blacklisted by the NAACP Image Awards (Prison Break, indeed...). It's that word you hear the kids freestyling on the street—"M to the izzo, L to the atto..." Yeah, that word. The M-word. Mulatto.

As a biracial American, for the first time in my adult life I'm really proud of my country. Even though the "national conversation on race" is turning out to be like trying to use an iPhone to call someone on a CB radio, my people are coming to light in the public consciousness in a way that we never have before. This is our moment. I hear that CNN's next big series will be called "Beige in America." Now that Obama is the H.M.I.C., it's our chance to make it clear once and for all that the M-word is "Strictly 4 My M W.O.R.D.Z."

David wants to claim a heritage that's rarely talked about - and be proud. Since that time, we've heard people on both the right and left disparage President Obama due to that same heritage. But I suspect that the young David's of our world will have none of that. And they're likely to change the face of the conversation as they enter it in full force.

In the end, David told a story that has stuck with me. Now I'll share it with you and hope it reminds you that in many ways, David is our future.

The other day I pulled up to the Starbucks drive-through window, ordered an iced coffee, and naturally I asked the barista to add half-and-half. When she asked how much I wanted, I couldn't resist telling her to "make it 'Obama,'" and I'm happy to report that she got it just right. With any luck, a craze for venti, half-caff, low-fat Obama coffees will sweep the nation. This could be the breakthrough we've been waiting for. It's a nice, safe way for everybody, regardless of race, creed, color or roast to show their solidarity with Generation M.

You and I might not be around long enough to see it, but we're slowly getting closer to the day when we'll all be the same rich, creamy shade. And we don't know yet if Obama will win, but either way 2009 is destined be our year—the year of the M-word.

UPDATE: I'm afraid this is going to be disjointed, but as soon as I posted this I thought of Adam Serwer's (another young "Mullato" man who has found his way in this world) response to Cornell West's diatribe about President Obama. He talks about the journey of claiming that heritage.

In response to perceived social slights, West severs Obama from any individual claim to blackness while inviting him to accept the terms of an implicit contract by which his lost negritude might be restored. For mixed people, blackness is not accepted as a fact of existence but something negotiable, a question of membership to which those whom are Truly Black may grant you access. This gives the game away of course, the reality of race as an invention, if one we have no choice but to live with.

Growing up mixed you sometimes face a kind of confusion. Those around you press you to make a choice about how much of yourself you're willing to give up, how much you're are willing to pretend in order to claim membership in one club or another. West demands to know why Obama isn't sitting at the black table in the dining hall, while reminding him that he's only welcome there by his graces. What you eventually learn is that peace is not something the "gatekeepers" have to offer and is the last thing they want you to find. Eventually you learn the rules of the game are silly and destructive, and who you are can't be negotiated either way.

To some degree this is just a part of adolescence, but most people have grown out of this kind of racial pageantry by middle age. West has not, but perhaps worse, he assumes the president has not. Perhaps he did not read the president's autobiography, or he would have realized that Obama is not a lost little mulatto child who is willing to give West something in exchange for that which is not West's to trade. Obama's struggle to find peace with himself is essentially the opposite of "deracination," a term that takes on all the force of an epithet here. Obama is lambasted as a Kenyan anti-colonialist by the likes of Newt Gingrich, and as a wide-eyed surrogate of "upper middle class white and Jewish men" by the likes of West. To have one group of morons question your citizenship while others question your blackness. To have one's very being interrogated by those who, because of their own pathologies, see your difference as a kind of terrible mistake, an anomaly to be soothed with toxic balm of archaic social binaries, this is what it means to be black, and also a mutt.


  1. robinswing - Don't you just know in your bones that if the future is in the hands of young people like David and Adam (and your grandkids), we're going to be OK.

    One other funny story - after I told a friend of mine about this, she gave me some "Obama blend" coffee beans. A local store had combined Kenyan and Hawaiian roasts. LOL

  2. 'Afternoon, Ms. Pants

    VERY good piece. Mr.'s Swerdlick and Sewer remind me of talking with my, now, 26 year old daughter.

    Her mother and I raised her (and our son. but she's MUCH more "hard core") to be comfortable with and proud of having her dual heritages. A result was us having to go to both her grade school and high school more than once because she would inSIST on, on standardized tests, shading both the black and white categories for race. NEVER backed down on this. Made for some fun times.

    As Mr. Serwer points out, though, it has never been easy and, clearly, still isn't being mulatto (my daughter will use that term but she prefers "mixed". kinda like her old man who CAN say "African-American" but prefers "black").

    Thank you for shedding some more much needed light on what a growing segment of people - GLOBALLY, I might add - have to contend with.

  3. My Sistah
    I have no fears about the future. It is being shaped by the long slow arc of justice. I may not be in a body when it finally happens, but I will be in the joy people have in their hearts.