Apr/May 2009

Beyond the Skin Trade

How does black nationalism stay relevant in the age of Barack Obama?

Victor Lavalle


When I was a boy, I prayed for straight hair. You have to understand, I grew up on heavy metal. Iron Maiden and Judas Priest to start. Then Anthrax and Exodus, Megadeth and Metallica. My friends and I gathered in living rooms and basements and empty lots and banged our heads to “Damage, Inc.” and “I Am the Law.” If you nearly snapped your neck, you were doing something right. We were a pretty wild mix: a Persian kid, a Korean, a couple of white guys, and me—the only one with a tight, curly Afro. The rest had straight hair, grown long, and when they thrashed to the music, their hair bounced and whipped like it was supposed to. I’d watch them pull off this casual magic and wish I’d been so blessed. But I was black, and there was no enchantment in that. It actually felt like a kind of curse. I’m so embarrassed to admit any of this.

Now, heavy metal may be to blame for any number of ills (my tinnitus, for instance), but I can’t really say it spawned my self-loathing. Instead, let’s head upstairs, to my family’s apartment in Flushing, Queens. We won’t meet the guilty party there, just another link in a long chain.

My mom grew up in East Africa. Uganda. A member of a tribe called the Baganda, the largest ethnic group in the country. Daughter of a proud and courageous mother and father. They worked to eject the British colonial powers; they were one small part of the Pan-African movement. My grandfather helped oust the British and set up schools in rural Uganda. He made sure his own kids were educated. For college, my mother packed off to Canada. In Kitchener-Waterloo, she was denied housing, mistreated and maligned in school and on the street. Finally, she moved to America to escape the racism. That poor woman—she didn’t understand what was happening to her. What had already happened. Somewhere, flying over the Atlantic Ocean maybe, she’d stopped being a Muganda, a Ugandan, or even African. She had become black.

The original American slaves weren’t black, either. They were Ashanti and Ewe and Fanti, among others. The slaves’ path to Christianity has been told and retold as the great conversion story of Africans in the Americas. But that’s not the only conversion story. There’s the legal conversion: from humans being into chattel. And there’s the cultural conversion: A wealth of ethnicities became one black race. This must have shocked those Africans as much as it did my mother.

With the earliest instances of rebellion against the slave system—whether armed insurrection or covert escape or the liberation of literacy—black nationalism was born. Even before it had a name, it was a practice. Just staying alive was an act of defiance. Thus every black person was a part of the resistance. Up, you mighty race!

My father is white.

As the decades passed, black nationalism created and re-created itself in this country. David Walker and Harriet Tubman’s role in shaping abolitionism; Marcus Garvey’s model of separate but formidable black entrepreneurship; the civil rights struggle; Black Power; the Nation of Islam; the Nation of Gods and Earths. Each can be categorized as a form of black nationalism. But no matter which era or organization, whether they were capitalists or Marxists or advocates of repatriation, they all seemed to assume one basic truth: We’re all in this together.

Rich or poor, southerner or northerner, dark skinned or light, black folks are on the same side. Remember Marcus Garvey’s call: “Africa for the Africans!” And Malcolm X’s line: “When I speak of the South, I mean south of Canada. The whole US is the South.” (Though my mother could’ve schooled him on that.) Our own schools, our own churches; maybe someday even our own state. But check out the sleight-of-hand America had managed. What really held us together besides the system we opposed? What would black nationalism be without a common enemy?

• • •

It seems all Americans are now contractually required to bring up Barack Obama at least once a week. In either wonder or disgust, cynicism or cloudy-eyed glee. As a black person, it’s actually common courtesy to mention my man at least once a day. But right now, I’m more concerned with Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham Soetoro. The white woman from Kansas reminds me of my own mother, the black woman from Uganda. It’s not the wanderlust or the tenacity (though those are comparable, too). Instead, it’s a choice each woman made. About who would father her child. And why.

In Dreams from My Father, Obama recounts going to see Black Orpheus with his mother. Halfway through the movie, he’s pretty tired of it, the depiction of black folks being far from complex or interesting. But then he looks at his mother: “Her face, lit by the blue glow of the screen, was set in a wistful gaze. At that moment, I felt as if I were being given a window into her heart, the unreflective heart of her youth. I suddenly realized that the depiction of childlike blacks I was now seeing on the screen, the reverse image of Conrad’s dark savages, was what my mother had carried with her to Hawaii all those years before, a reflection of the simple fantasies that had been forbidden to a white middle-class girl from Kansas, the promise of another life: warm, sensual, exotic, different.”

My own mother’s life strikes me as a fair capsule summary of the black experience in America. Reaching these shores as an African, not so much proud of this fact as unaware she should feel ashamed. Then made aware. While she didn’t take over any buildings or arm herself, my mother did bring my ailing grandmother over from Uganda to care for her. She worked as a legal secretary while helping her brother get through college. I count these as her years of resistance. But eventually her resistance ran out.

My mother and I have always had a good relationship, very forthright, and whenever I used to ask her why she married my father, she would offer only one answer: “So you would be light-skinned.”

My mom is going to beat my ass if she ever sees this. I can’t imagine anything that would embarrass her more. It’s not that she never said it, not that it isn’t true, but to say it out loud. To print it. And in a place where white folks might read it! These expressions of self-loathing go on, but you don’t admit them in mixed company. If you do, well, what the hell kind of black person are you?

And here’s why Ann Dunham Soetoro reminds me of my mother: Blackness was more of an idea than a reality for both, yet one of the most important choices of each woman’s life was based on it. One woman yearned for it, while the other wished to escape. Either way, blackness (and whiteness) defined them.

I’m not saying my mother, or Obama’s, made her choice consciously. My mother’s answer to my paternity question always seemed like insight she’d gained after the fact. Maybe a way to recast loss as a kind of victory. But consciously or not, she wanted her child to be lighter than she was. She believed my life in America would be easier that way. And she was right. It has been.

Faced with her life’s evidence, she couldn’t have imagined a rat-fuck, heartless, shit-stain system like this country’s would ever die. Resist or surrender: Those were a black person’s only choices in these United States. That would never change.

But then it did.

I remember watching Obama’s victory speech on a JumboTron out on 125th Street. I watched him at that podium in Grant Park while I stood in a mixed-race crowd in the middle of a revitalized Harlem. What world is this? I wondered even as I hooted and hollered. Who could’ve imagined such sights and wonders? When I finally reached my mother on the phone, she sounded even more awestruck than I was.

• • •

I’m sick of discussing black nationalism. I’m tired of all the dourness and doomsaying; of the grimace that’s required whenever we discuss it and blackness in general; of the countless humorless men and women who scold every impulse toward comfort or laughter or, dare I say it, optimism. I’m sick of the same old forecast for blackness: gloom followed by clouds of hail.

On January 20, 2009, the president of the United States was a black man, or blackish if you want to nitpick. On January 30, 2009, the head of the Republican National Committee was a black man. And in the 2008 election race, a black woman ran as the presidential nominee of the Green Party. What is black nationalism to make of all this? A system of thought, a method of living, that sought empowerment through opposition now looks a lot like the leaders of the system it opposed. I’m not suggesting that the existence of these few black leaders indicates the end of hard times for black Americans. What I’m wondering is this: If a disempowered black person opposes an empowered black person, which one is the black nationalist?

This essay was supposed to be an obituary, a eulogy, for black nationalism, but I’ve spent a good deal of it going on about my mother. She might not believe me, but I mean all these admissions and revelations as a testament to her and, by extension, to black nationalism. Who can judge what he can’t understand? Not me. And our elders battled through some genuinely incomprehensible shit.

But if the final goal of black nationalism is freedom and autonomy for black folks, then maybe that even means becoming liberated from our debts to our forebears. Not to forget them, but to bury them with honor. Then maybe we’ll get to devise new solutions to old problems. Even my silly little headbanging woes turned out to have a pretty simple solution, one I figured out only years later. I didn’t need straight hair to thrash, I just grew dreadlocks. Voilà—free to be a black metalhead.

I imagine telling all this to my mother. I can see us in her living room, on her powder-blue couch. She listens to my desire, my need, to think differently about our place in the world. To set the old burdens down. She nods, and when I’m done, she reaches out to touch my cheek. She smiles, but not with joy, just wistfulness. I see the back of her dark brown hand in contrast to the side of my honey-colored face. She sighs. Then she speaks. Only five words: “Easy for you to say.”

Victor LaValle is the author of the novel The Ecstatic (Crown, 2002).

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