Much has already been written about Obama and whether he should be called African-American, white, black, mixed race, post-racial, or just.... Mr. President. More intelligent and better educated people than I have written extensively on this question, yet I'd like to find a way to answer those who ask me, "Why call him black when he is as much white as he is black?"
My wanting to qualify our new president as "black" stems in part from my personal experience with race in America. I grew up in the segregated South and did not encounter a black person who was not a servant, a janitor, or a gardener before I was 14 years old. It was then that I came to know Mrs. Lamotte, my 8th grade French teacher. She was also the very first black teacher at our school. I loved her enthusiasm and I loved learning French. The year was 1968. I didn't think much about her "blackness," I was simply interested in French. As I moved on to high school, there were no more black teachers, yet I did not question why there were no black people in my world. My segregated life continued throughout my teens in Baton Rouge and in Houston, and then for a large part, during my four years at Louisiana State University. I majored in French (thank you, Mrs. Lamotte), went on to do graduate work in France on a scholarship, married a Frenchman and stayed in France for 18 years. When my husband and our three sons moved to Washington DC in 1995, my experience of "blackness" had deepened through living abroad, but I was not prepared for what happened next. The black people I met in Washington resembled neither the few black people I had known in my youth nor the few Africans I had met in France: my new black acquaintances and friends were for the most part highly educated, articulate, wealthy professionals who had, against many odds, done extremely well in their endeavors, had "suceeded" in life more than I had. The feeling I experienced in knowing these African Americans was one of satisfaction, of happiness, and of relief. During the past ten years, as I have taught English to primary school students at the French lycée in Washington, I have learned of heroes of whom I had previously known nothing: Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr., Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth. I learned about the Civil Rights movement, I learned about Brown vs. Board of Education, and I learned about Ruby Bridges. Ruby entered first grade at William Franz Elementary School in New Orleans the same year I entered Broadmoor Elementary in Baton Rouge. We were exactly the same age, we lived 60 miles apart, we knew nothing of each other. But Ruby's entrance into first grade was nothing like mine. Ruby was ordered by a federal judge to enter the school, and she and her teacher Mrs. Henry spent many long months alone because the white folks boycotted Ruby's very presence and refused to send their children to school with her. I learned of Ruby the year I turned 50. Awareness of her and what she went through was an epiphany for me. I felt that I must, in any small way possible, become connected and in solidarity with my black brothers and sisters, that the American society of which I and they were a part had set them aside in a way that I could no longer tolerate or bear. That same year, during the summer months, as I watched the Democratic Convention on television, I heard a young man give a speech. As I listened in rapt attention, the words he spoke connected me to our history, and I knew that he spoke of what was to come: "There is not a liberal America and a conservative America... there is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America... blue, red, straight gay, we are all one people, the United States of America...."
If Mrs. Lamotte was black, then President Obama is black. He must be black. We need him to be black. His blackness contributes to the healing of our country's racial injustices and wounds. African-Americans calling themselves black are a mixture of races just as other Americans are a mixture of races (as I am too but I'll save that story for another time). As Americans, we are mongrels, mixed, - mutts, as Obama once qualified himself - and therefore connected. We choose to call ourselves what we think we are, we are free - to a certain extent - to define ourselves. Obama's blackness is living proof that America can continue its journey of leaving past injustices behind and renewing itself. Obama's blackness embodies that hope.