A couple of weeks back, we witnessed two quite different but intriguing cases of people laying claim to an African-American identity without having the lineage that we generally assume provides that identity– biological descent from African slaves in the United States. These two people were, in effect, asserting that they could choose to be African-American.
One was the media-circus case of Rachel Dolezal, who had become a leader in Spokane’s African-American community despite, it was eventually revealed, no apparent African-American ancestors. She, in effect, chose to be black.
The other was the somber and uplifting address by President Obama on the occasion of the murders in Charleston. He delivered a sermon in the style and cadences of the African-American church, from the start–“Giving all praise and honor to God”– to the end–breaking out in “Amazing Grace”– and in the middle–explaining the obligations of receiving undeserved grace. This from a man with no ancestral claims on African-American culture, a man with a white mother and a Kenyan father who was raised by white grandparents. Along the way Barack Obama nonetheless chose to be African-American and act as if he, too, came from a family that endured slavery, sharecropped cotton, and sang gospel.
Choosing who one wants to be is a powerful American cultural theme. It would be amazing if we are glimpsing–though still far from entering–an era when even American blackness is a choice.
Among America’s attractions to immigrants over the centuries has been the opportunity to make and remake oneself as one chooses. Change names, change clothes, work on losing the accent, and even a Kowalski or a Ferrari can pass as a Mr. Smith–or at least, the children can. Such transformations were not easy, but shedding ethnic identities was far more possible here than in the old country. Conversely, then, staying Polish or Italian in America also became more a matter of purposeful decision.
Probably the most researched case of how fated ethnicity became chosen ethnicity is that of Jews. For millennia, individual Jews in the old world were as marked by and confined by their birth identities as any people. Even converting to Christianity, either to avoid immediate death or to open new doors, was no guarantee of acceptance, as the would-be ex-Jews of Spain in the era of the Inquisition and of Germany in the era of the Nazis painfully learned.
Shucking a Jewish identity was a lot easier in America, especially if one did not “look Jewish,” avoided Jewish neighborhoods, and explained one’s accent as being German or Czech. Even easier for the children. U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright learned of her Jewish ancestry only when she was an adult. Her Czech-born parents converted while living in exile in Britain in 1941 and never told her. Current Secretary of State John Kerry had a similar revelation in 2004: “Both his father’s parents … converted to Christianity because of antisemitism, and they changed their name from Cohen to Kerry when they immigrated to the United States.”
The increasing ease of dropping a Jewish identity has become matched by the increasing ease of adopting one. Not only is conversion into Judaism relatively simple in modern America, so is less formal identification as a Jew. Even without rabbinical conversion, many spouses in interfaith marriages participate in Jewish family, community, and synagogue life as if they had been born Jewish. Sociologist Bruce Phillips, analyzing a large Pew survey of self-identified American Jews, points to a growing number of people who seem to be “Jews by affinity.” With no apparent formal religious or family connection, they declare themselves Jewish because they feel Jewish. Going or coming, being a Jew in America is increasingly a matter of individual choice.
Black is Different
Being African-American is different, way different. The “markings” of black identity in America are much sharper and the consequences over the centuries of being so marked in America have been far more damaging. As a light-skinned biracial writer recently put it, “Sometimes identifying as black feels like a choice; other times it is a choice made for me.” And her darker-hued siblings have no choice.
Of course, blacks “passing” as whites has been a common practice for centuries, but one that required alienation from kin (described recently by another black journalist) and was freighted with severe risk if revealed (or simply charged, as in a 1955 case). There have also been occasional cases of whites posing as blacks (examples here), especially when interracial marriage was illegal. There may be more cases today than just the curious one of Rachel Dolezal, as blackness has gained cachet in some circles and the penalties it carries have declined. (Declined but still remain high, as discussed in earlier blog posts here, here, and here.) As to the case of Barack Obama, despite his complexion and hair, he still had choices. He could have decided that he was…. oh…, a Muslim of East-African or Indonesian heritage rather than a Christian of African-American heritage.
Twenty-first-century Americans cannot be whatever they want to be, but the constraints are loosening. (Even gender has become more voluntary and self-constructed.) The most dramatic change may come some day when Americans exercise as much choice about being or not being African-American as they exercise about being or not being Catholic or Irish-American.
(Re-posted on the Berkeley Blog on July 14, 2015.)