I recently visited with several of my cousins who grew up in a small town in South Carolina in the 1950s. Having spent time there on summer visits, I always thought they had a nice life. All these years later they revealed a dark side of their educational experience.
Their stories were not of mistreatment by white southerners or even the fact that they attended a segregated school. I learned how they were frequently bullied and intimidated by darker-skinned classmates. Because my cousins were light-skinned and had straight hair and didn’t look like the rest of the people in the class, they were objects of scorn.
The unwarranted attacks on the racial identity of presidential candidate and California Senator Kamala Harris are no different than what happened to my cousins. It was black-on-black crime then. Now it is the infliction of political damage on a black woman by self-hating blacks who bear a striking resemblance to those who bullied my cousins. In their sick minds because Harris doesn’t look like former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, she doesn’t qualify as black, African American or whatever name you want to put on a non-white person.
For those who don’t know about her lineage, Kamala Harris’ mother, Shyamala Gopalan, immigrated to the United States from India. A college student in her teens, she came to America alone and proved to be one tough cookie. She got an education — a Ph.D. — and married an immigrant from Jamaica who was black. When Donald Harris left her, Shyamala raised her two girls in black neighborhoods. She had black friends. She demonstrated for black causes and attended a black church. Kamala had surrogate black grandparents who created a second home for her and her sister when her mother worked. She attended segregated schools in her childhood and an historically black college. She joined a black sorority and has a wide circle of black friends, some of whom are relatives of mine.
Compared to Barack Obama who spent part of his youth in Indonesia and the rest with white grandparents in Hawaii and didn’t live on the United States mainland until college, Kamala is a virtual hood rat. But according to her critics, because she is a first-generation American and her great, great, grandparents were not slaves, she’s not black enough.
Eric Brewer, a former mayor of East Cleveland, former newspaper publisher, and local political pundit, is among other self-proclaimed spokesmen of the black race who put forth this totally inane and stupid argument in a recent Facebook post. Brewer argues that because Harris doesn’t have nine generations of ancestors who lived in the US — which he claims to have — she doesn’t qualify for the total black experience.
Following his logic, let’s consider a person of color who goes to Ancestory.com and proves that they have the requisite genealogy to meet Brewer’s requirements. But then let’s weigh the person’s genes versus environment. Say this same person was adopted by a white family, never attended a black school and has no black friends. According to Brewer, he or she has a better innate understanding of the so-called black experiences than Harris. I guess for Brewer, its all in the genes.
During the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, Alain Locke wrote a novel entitled The New Negro. The term implied the evolution of a new generations of black Americans who were outspoken advocates of racial dignity and refused to submit quietly to the practices of Jim Crow laws and segregation. With the number of interracial marriages and relationships on a steady uptick and the resultant biracial children in our society, folks like Brewer had better get used to the New Negro who looks like Kamala Harris.
As former President Obama said several months ago, Democratic candidates are engaging in a circular firing squad attempting to kill each other off. Black folks like Brewer are aiming their sights on Harris for no other reason than she doesn’t look like them or share their background. It was therefore heartwarming to see fellow Democratic contenders come to Harris’ defense when this issue raised its ugly head on the national scene.
While I like Harris a great deal and believe her credentials as a former Attorney General of the State of California and current United States Senator make her well qualified for the Oval Office, I fear the ever present dark cloud of anti-female bias that contributed to the defeat of Hillary Clinton. Any female candidate must overcome that onus first, so Harris doesn’t need any additional attacks.
A white person who grows up in a black family, acquires a black speech pattern and spends his or her life in the ’hood can go to a voice coach, change their accent and return to the white world. They can even change their name if necessary. Persons of color don’t have the same options.
Black people, even the likes of Tiger Woods, who deny their racial identity, can’t escape the amount of melanin in their skin or their racial features. When Woods won his first Masters Tournament no one talked about bringing Thai food because of his mother’s heritage. Fuzzy Zoeller suggested fried chicken and collard green. Woods’ self-proclaimed racial identification of Cablinasian — whatever the heck that is — tells me that he’s a man that wants to be anything but black. That’s not Harris.
When she comes into a room no one asks to see her family tree. She’s perceived as a black woman. She sees herself as a black woman. She accepts her racial identity and wears it proudly. There is no reason for her racial identity to be defined by a set of artificial norms set up by people like Brewer or other blacks who do nothing to help candidates. They just sit back and throw stones and criticize — criticism that will further divide the Democratic base and give Donald Trump four more years.
C. Ellen Connally is a retired judge of the Cleveland Municipal Court. From 2010 to 2014 she served as the President of the Cuyahoga County Council. An avid reader and student of American history, she serves on the Board of the Ohio History Connection, is currently vice president of the Cuyahoga County Soldiers and Sailors Monument Commission and treasurer of the Cleveland Civil War Round Table. She holds degrees from BGSU, CSU and is all but dissertation for a PhD from the University of Akron.