Black folks in this country, those who were brought as prisoners of war and those that emigrated of their own accord, have a long history of names and labels that have been applied to us. The list is exhausting. The term that is now popular with white folks is, “African-American.” It is a nice polite term, but to me, it describes a voluntary immigrant from any number of African nations. It does not describe me.
I am, unquestionably of African descent, but that is only the beginning of my story. I am descended from slaves. I am a survivor of people who were kidnapped from their native lands, held as prisoners of war and forced to labor as slaves. This was not the first time a stronger nation had enslaved the people of a weaker nation, or that a conquering nation had enslaved the folks of a conquered nation. What made American chattel slavery was the generational aspect of it that us, the descendants of slaves, are still suffering the effects.
I am old enough to remember whispered conversations about old family photos. I would ask who the subjects of the photos were, how they were related to me. As a child, it would thrill me to hear that some image cast in the shadow and light of an impossibly old photo was my great, great, great, great…something. I would study the regal poses and their largely unsmiling eyes and realized that being photographed for them was not some lark or a folly, but that they were bearing witness.
They were bearing witness to the fact that millions of people were kidnapped from a foreign country, brought to these colonies and forced to labor. The children of these slaves could not escape the cycle of servitude, even if they were fathered by the so-called master. Even under these conditions we invented a language that is still in use in some parts of the black community world-wide, we invented music that was so good white folks Columbused it and claimed the music as their own. We worked as smiths, carpenters, cobblers, tailors and seamstresses, cooks, and in food preservation and canning arts among countless others. We used the proceeds from this labor, earned after giving a full six-day work week for free to the slave owner, to purchase our and our families freedom. We are an amazing people because we are descendants of slaves.
We are amazing, but like folks going thru trauma and PTSD, it is often difficult for us to see the ways are amazing. I am asserting to you that even though we do not see it, other people do and try to appropriate our cultural history as their own. Rachel Dolezal re-invented herself as a black woman to try to tap into the sacred magic of being descended from American slavery.
I do not know what is in this woman’s heart. I have no idea why she decided to “become” a black person and claim to be a descendant of American slaves. I do know that we come in all colors, textures of hair, eye color, etc. There is no “paper bag” test to determine if you are descendant of slavery, generally folks, no matter how light or unlikely you look. However, if we find out that you have lied or misrepresented your background, you are dead to us. Rachel Dolezal lost her position as head of the Spokane, WA branch of the NAACP, lost her job teaching black studies and, to add insult to injury was convicted of welfare fraud.
Kamala Harris has arguably committed the same offense. She is not descended from American slaves. Her mother is a Tamil Indian and her father is Jamaican. She may be able to claim to be a descendant of Caribbean slaves, but that is an entirely different dynamic than descendants of American slaves. Kamala Harris was the daughter of privileged academics, but she chose to attend Howard University and join a traditionally black sorority. This seems to be part of long-term plan on Senator Harris’s part to use this appropriation of culture for personal gain. She dated a noted black politician, Willie Brown, who by her own admission introduced her to California’s black political power brokers. Senator Harris used those connections to get herself elected to statewide offices.
Rachel Dolezal was widely condemned in the descendant of American slaves community for her cultural appropriation. It can be argued that Ms. Dolezal was the more authentic in these two cases of cultural appropriation. Senator Harris only dated a black man to use his status and authentic blackness as her entrée into the black political system. She married another privileged lawyer, who happens to be a white man of Jewish heritage. Ms. Dolezal has been married to a black man who is descended from American slavery, she also has sons that share that are black. She had authentic connections with the black community outside of her public life. Senator Harris only appears to only appropriate black culture in her public life.
I am not suggesting that Senator Harris would not make a good president. I am asserting that personally, I would not support a candidate who misrepresented their cultural background. Zora Neale Hurston famously said, “All our skin folk ain’t our kinfolk.” Just because you look like a descendant of American slavery does not mean you are one.
Why is this important? In the long run, whether or not someone is a descendant of American slavery is not a good indicator of their fitness to hold public office. Someone’s honesty and integrity, however is certainly important. Senator Harris is smart, she will not directly say she is descended from American slaves, but she will lament about being bused as a child. She also attended a historically black college and joined organizations set up by descendants of slaves. She is doing everything to demonstrate that she is one of us, except saying it. I say, we have already had our non-descended from American slavery black president. His name was Barack Hussein Obama, Sen. Harris, you are no Barack Obama.