tampabay.com

Not either or, but both

By MOHAMMAD ALI SALIH Special to the Times
Published April 15, 2007


"You may describe yourself as black, or as white. Others may describe you as black, or as white. But God Almighty has created you half-black and half-white. And there is no force on Earth that is going to change that."

For many years, around the dinner table whenever we talked about race, this has been my mantra to my three biracial children half black, half white.

That is why I have been saddened and puzzled by the way Sen. Barack Obama, and the media, are handling the fact that he is half-black and half-white.

In his book Dreams from My Father, he presented a picture of a man who spent much of his life anguishing over his mixed-race heritage. He described his father as "black as pitch" and his mother as "white as milk." He imagined others making assumptions about "the mixed blood, the divided soul, the ghostly image of a tragic mulatto trapped between two worlds."

Early in his life, he wrote, he strongly leaned toward the race of his father, "the black man, the son of Africa;" engaged with black friends in conversations about "white folks this and white folks that;" and almost denied the color of his mother.

When my son, now a 20-something, went to college, he took classes in African literature and history, got involved in Afro-centrism, and used to come home and argue with me for hours about 200 years of slavery in America and how the white man colonized and exploited Africa.

I, an immigrant and proud "son of Africa," identify myself first as a Muslim (my faith is the core of my identity), then Arab (Arabic is my native tongue), then African (because of my culture). I replied that the past was past. Astonishingly, he listened to me repeating another mantra about myself: "The color of my skin has nothing to do with my identity."

Also astonishingly, he listened to me talking about slaves owned by my grandfather (a northern Sudanese Bedouin Arab); how I didn't feel guilty for what he did; how things were different then; and how the slaves' and our descendants long ago opened a new page in our relations.

Now, my son and I don't argue about race as much as we used to. Last year, he wrote in this very Perspective section: "As true of most biracial children, defining myself along cultural lines has always been somewhat problematic. I was raised in a tolerant household that valued exposure to different cultures. ... (But) I found it hard - and still do - to cultivate a culture in which to plant roots and call my own." (Read it at links.tampabay.com.)

I understand a biracial's cultural confusion, but I believe his/her race is equally divided, regardless of what others may say and regardless of the "one-drop theory" (the historical colloquial American term that one drop of African blood makes a person black).

My college-age daughter is less racially polarized than her brother and seems to lean more toward Islam as a base of her identity. When she went to college, she came home with stories about people mistaking her for a Latina. She said she replied that her mother was white and her father was "Sudanese. Not African-American, not black American. African." I asked about the distinction and she replied in an advising manner: "Dad, in America there is a difference."

My high school daughter doesn't want to talk about race. She has her own mantra: "Who cares?" She says people shouldn't make a big deal about racial and religious differences.

I am not biracial, but I am bitribal. My father's tribe not only boycotted his marriage from another tribe, but plotted and sent his brother to the wedding, ostensibly to participate, but actually to collect the money guests paid after they ate and celebrated. When the wedding was over, he got on the back of his donkey and fled to his tribe's dwellings with the money. Years later, the two tribes reconciled.

After more than 30 years in America, I am still discovering the extent of its racial divide, which is deeper than I had thought. I have found that the divide has become more subtle - thanks but no thanks to political correctness and slogans like: "We are a colorblind nation." I would rather have moral correctness, where every American is proud of his/her "tribe" or his/her "bitribes."

Not long ago, in Selma, Ala., in front of an almost all-black audience, Obama, apparently reluctantly, said: "A lot of people been asking, well, you know, your father was from Africa, your mother, she's a white woman from Kansas." But then he quickly started talking about his African grandfather, "a cook and a house boy to the British," as if his blackness was all that he could offer.

The presidential election is 19 months away, and Obama has plenty of time to really make a difference:

He could continue to play racial (and biracial) politics. As an Oakland, Calif., newspaper that covered his recent visit there said: "He is walking a delicate race-in-politics tightrope, balancing his minority status and unusual upbringing with his ability to excite the Democratic crowds."

Or he can most probably make himself, his parents, my children, biracials, bitribals and maybe everyone else proud, if he takes with him the white side of his family next time he addresses a black audience; declares how he is proud of his half whiteness; and proudly uses the "bi" word.

Since 1980, Mohammad Ali Salih has been the Washington, D.C., correspondent for London-based Asharq Alawsat, an international Arabic daily newspaper, and other Arabic publications. Contact him at mohammadalisalih@yahoo.com.