Why President Obama is Not Mixed: Decoding Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates, at The Atlantic, has been crushing it with his take on the controversial, politically-dynamite topic of Reparations. I happen to mostly disagree with him (post for another time)- but that is beside the point, as his goal is to stoke discussion on the issue. And it appears he is succeeding on that count.

I paid particular attention to this passage in his June 12 2014 response to David Frum.

'"Does a mixed-raced person qualify?" David asks. Probably so, given that there are very few "pure raced" black people who were injured by racism. Indeed, the lack of "purity" is parcel to the injury (emphasis added). Perhaps David wants to ask "Do black people with direct 'white' ancestry qualify?" The correct reply to this is "Were black people with direct 'white' ancestry victims of racist housing policy?" The answer to that question is knowable. But it is not the question we ask. Instead we focus on the myth of "race," while ignoring the demonstrable fact of injury."

We could go back to proto-Humans. We could go way back to the beginnings of Chinese civilization at the banks of the Yellow river, or some other civilization on some other river, like the Indus, or the Euphrates. We could talk about Gandhara, the once mixed Buddhist and Greek land occupying modern Pakistan, or the fundamental mixedness in Europe that derived from the Germanic migrations into once Roman and Celtic lands, or the Peranakan culture in Malaysia born of Malay and Chinese influences. Also, what about Yuan (Mongolian) influence on the Han peoples? Modern Greeks are only faintly of the same stock of Socrates, the living evidence of centuries of inbound Slavic migration. The Egyptians? Ditto. The examples march through history ad nauseum. Mixed is the rule.

As simply familiar as French culture is, or Ecuadorian culture is, or indeed any other culture is- impurities are rife. And "Black" as Ta-Nehisi Coates describes is just the same. "The lack of "purity" is parcel to the injury:" just think about that. Those are powerful words. But the tricky thing is that even though "Black" is fundamentally mixed, Coates and many in the African-American community would rather think of "Black" as discrete.

The Acid Test: in hypothetical Slavery Reparations recompense would a lighter-skinned African-American receive a discount? Would their recompense be discounted in proportion to the amount of white-blood that coursed their veins? It is clear that Coates is not keen on immediately outlining some terse, annotated PPT with a detailed executive summary on how to execute a reparations bill, or package, or proposal- he charges that Frum is "anxious to skip the history and leap to implementation." Nonetheless, it is an important point; my reading of Coates (especially here) is that if he were pressed to be a signatory to some draft Reparations bill, he would absolutely not advocate splitting the Black community whichsoever. In other words, a mixed African-American kid, with a White mother and Black father- today- would be just as black as a lighter-skinned multi-generational African American (who wasn't obviously mixed). And they, again this is only a presumption, would all be part of a singular African American group covered under this hypothetical bill.

The modern American "Hapa" or Biracial, or Multiracial movement I think has some trouble with this idea. It is the same schizophrenically elated but snubbed feeling they experienced when then Senator Barack Obama ran for President. They wanted to claim him as "Biracial" or "Multiracial," but as we know- The President ran as a Black politician, and he identifies simply as an African-American. 

Hapas will say that they understand; that he ran as such, despite being raised by a White Mid-Western mother, for political expediency- it was the only path to the Presidency, they'd say. But if you listen to Coates- really listen to him- I can hear much, much more than political expediency going on, both in his Case for Reparations and my additional example of the President's singular identity. "Black" may be far from pure, but it is a thing, and it is whole. 

You hear it in W.E.B. Du Bois:

"And last of all there trickles down that third and darker thought,—the thought of the things themselves, the confused, half-conscious mutter of men who are black and whitened, crying “Liberty, Freedom, Opportunity—vouchsafe to us, O boastful World, the chance of living men!” 

You hear it in Frederick Douglass:

"My father was a white man. He was admitted to be such by all I ever heard speak of my parentage. The opinion was also whispered that my master was my father; but of the correctness of this opinion, I know nothing; the means of knowing was withheld from me."

For both Du Bois, who was a Haitian mulatto by extraction, and Douglass who was always forthright about the original sin underlying his dual ancestry- they share an inescaple "mixedness" with President Obama. But the fundamental point is that being African-American, and I use that term advisedly- as different from African, has mixed already embedded in it. 

Greatness has never been about purity- as Nietzsche says, it is something that can be "as diversified as can be entire, as ample as can be full."