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A Brown Man in a Black Box


Cobb makes a general cultural distinction that I’ve been applying to Obama for several years:

I know my kids ain't black. And when it comes to their adulthood, they won't need to be. They're brown - like the zillions in Africa, India and South and Central America. That's a good enough sample, and it's only skin color. They can't be black like me because my blackness was born of the times, not an essential, inescapable box, but a response to a condition. But so much of who I am is locked into that alternatively golden and grim experience.

The times and conditions Cobb refers to I think are well-illustrated in the beginning pages of Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets. The author—who looks brown due to South Asian heritage—meets a gang leader in the stairwell of a Chicago housing project:

I read him the same question that I had read the others. He didn’t laugh, but he smiled. How does it feel to be black and poor?

“I’m not black,” he answered, looking around at the others knowingly.

“Well, then, how does it feel to be African American and poor?” I tried to sound apologetic, worried that I had offended him.

“I’m not African American either. I’m a nigger.”

Now I didn’t know what to say. I certainly didn’t feel comfortable asking him how it felt to be a nigger. He took back my questionnaire and looked it over more carefully. He turned the pages, reading the questions to himself. He appeared disappointed, though I sensed his disappointment wasn’t aimed at me.

Niggers are the ones who live in this building,” he said at last. “African Americans live in the the suburbs. African Americans wear ties to work. Niggers can’t find no work.”

Although he doesn’t like to wear ties at work, the current President is not black in any meaningful way. And even beyond the mystery hidden on his birth certificate, he’s barely an American. Indonesia doesn’t present the conditions that form an American childhood, much less a black American childhood. Hawai’i has an independent non-American culture. Barry came to the real United States (as real as a private college in Los Angeles can be, anyway) at age eighteen, with an adolescent identity formed by foreign cultures. None of which were black.

Obama spent twenty years in Chicago building around himself a box similar to the one in which Cobb grew up. But we cannot change the way we were made. All Obama can be is a brown man in a black box.