Black Like Her


Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker (Photo by Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman Review via AP):

Among African-Americans, there is a particular contempt, rooted in the understanding that black culture was formed in a crucible of degradation, for what Norman Mailer hailed as the “white Negro.” Whatever elements of beauty or cool, whatever truth or marketable lies there are that we associate with blackness, they are ultimately the product of a community’s quest to be recognized as human in a society that is only ambivalently willing to see it as such. And it is this root that cannot be assimilated. The white Negroes, whose genealogy stretches backward from Azalea through Elvis and Paul Whiteman, share the luxury of being able to slough off blackness the moment it becomes disadvantageous, cumbersome, or dangerous. It is an identity as impermanent as burnt cork, whose profitability rests upon an unspoken suggestion that the surest evidence of white superiority is the capacity to exceed blacks even at being black. The black suspicion of whites thus steeped in black culture wasn’t bigotry; it was a cultural tariff—an abiding sense that, if they knew all that came with the category, they would be far less eager to enlist.

But this is precisely what makes the Dolezal deception complicated. Artists like Eminem and Teena Marie, white people who were by and large accepted by black people as a legitimate part of black cultural life, nonetheless had to finesse a kind of epidermal conflict of interest. Irrespective of their sincerity, a portion of their profitability lay in their status as atypically white. Dolezal’s transracialism was imbued with exactly the opposite undertaking. She passed as black and set about shouldering the inglorious, frustrating parts of that identity—the parts that allocate responsibility for what was once called “uplifting the race.” It’s an aspect of her story that at least ought to give her critics—black ones, particularly—a moment of pause.

Dolezal is, like me, a graduate of Howard University, a place where the constellation of black identities and appearances is so staggeringly vast as to ridicule the idea that blackness could be, or ever has been, any one thing. What I took from Howard, besides that broadened sense of a world I’d presumed to know, was an abiding debt to those who’d fought on its behalf and a responsibility to do so for those who came afterward. It’s easy to deride Dolezal’s dishonesty—to ridicule her hoax as a clever means of sidestepping the suspicion with which white liberals are commonly greeted—until we reflect on a photograph of Walter White, the aptly named man who served as the second black president of the N.A.A.C.P. Or one of Louis T. Wright, who served as the national chairman of the N.A.A.C.P. board during the Great Depression. In the nineteen-twenties, amid a feud with the organization, the black nationalist Marcus Garvey criticized the N.A.A.C.P. for being a organization whose black and white members were essentially indistinguishable.

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