NABJ Postcard #3: What Is the Truest Image of Black America?
LAS VEGAS -- It's a question lurking in the background of many conversations here:
What is most authentic image of Black America in the modern age?
Is it a confident professional like Bill Cosby's Cliff Huxtable, secure in his multi-colored sweaters and million-dollar townhome?
Is it me? Is it you?
So often defined by others, black folks are struggling now to define themselves. And because the black journalists convention brings together so many people who lead that conversation -- in a single, 10-minute span yesterday, I met Pulitzer Prize-winning op-ed columnist Cynthia Tucker, Washington Week host Gwen Ifill and NPR host Michele Martin -- that discussion is often Topic A.
On Thursday, I participated in a unique forum on the issue, moderated and taped by Martin for her new NPR talk show, Tell Me More. She had assembled a kinetic panel, including star Washington Post journalist Kevin Merida, columnist Mary Mitchell and Barack Obama pollster/advisor Cornell Belcher. Listen to the discussion here.
Ostensibly, the discussion was about the continuing question of whether Barack Obama is black enough to win a majority of the black vote. (See my story on this issue here.) And, predictably, Obama's pollster wanted to make the discussion about worthy, aspirational images, versus harmful, entertaining ones.
"The real issue is, "how do you define what is blackness (politically), if you did not come from the civil rights movement?" said Belcher. "If someone rises up, speaks articulately, and takes care of their family, why wouldn't you want that in a candidate?"
Mitchell noted the way in which some black folks criticize others for getting educated and/or speaking without a street vernacular -- accusing people of "acting white" -- saying its an essential mistrust of upwardly mobile folks because they often leave their old neighborhoods and never look back.
"People want to talk about racial identity, because racial identity is who we are," said Merida, whose work on the Post's Being a Black Man series has won all sorts of awards and has been tuned into a book. "But like most things written about us, it's not complex enough. In this discussion, Oprah gets challenged, Will Smith gets challenged and Obama gets challenged, and that's part of the discussion about racial identity."
I agreed with Kevin that the issue is complex and tough to portray in a sound bite -- though that's how people what to have the conversation. And so much of the discussion is contradictory -- black folks want to be seen as individuals, but also pressure others to follow a collective value of blackness; younger folks feel hip hop culture is vibrating with authenticity, but it seems to discourage so many healthy things in the community.
This is a conversation we're going to be having for a long time, I think. And when Obama appears here in a few hours, he'll get a few questions on the issue, I'm sure.
What do you think?