“Blacker Than Thou” by Kevin Young Summary
In the 1979 comedy The Jerk, Steve Martin plays a goofy rags-to-riches-to-rags character who narrates his own story, telling the audience at the beginning of the film that he “was born a poor black child.” At some point in his thirties, while trying to keep rhythm during a family singalong, he realized that he just couldn’t keep time with the music, leading his loving Black farmer parents to break the news that Martin’s plainly white character is actually adopted.
This is the opening gag to a silly film with little else to say about race except this one play on traditional racial stereotypes. Yet it’s what Kevin Young thinks about when the story breaks in June of 2015 that Rachel Dolezal, then the director of the Spokane, Washington, chapter of the NAACP and a former African American studies professor, was actually a white person. Dolezal had been coloring her skin and otherwise styling herself in a way that allowed her to “pass” as Black, though Young suspects that Black people knew all along and just didn’t say anything because they have such a strong tradition of nonjudgmental welcome.
The US has a long tradition of white people using blackface for different purposes, which “reduces” the meaning of Blackness to skin color and creates the perception of Black skin as “miscolored,” and Black people as “extra-dark white” people. Even if a white person really does “feel black,” as Dolezal might have, why do they have to look Black? Young asks. To answer his question, Young turns to Unoriginal Sin, his new nonfiction work about “hoaxers and impostors, plagiarists and phonies,” and considers Dolezal’s motivation from this perspective. At first, the Dolezal scandal was just an occasion for jokes and gossip on Black Twitter. But a week later when a white supremacist gunman killed nine congregants at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopalian church in Charleston, South Carolina, “things done got serious,” leading Young to write this essay reflecting on the essential qualities of Blackness.
Solidarity among Black people is defined by “something shared” that isn’t about skin color or other surface-level qualities, “but culture.” As demonstrated on the television show Fresh Off the Boat, the complexity of racial identity and the question of “becoming American” raises a similar question to Young about how one might possibly “become Black.” At the turn of the twentieth century, Irish and Jewish immigrant entertainers used the popularity of blackface minstrel shows to enter American show business, “assimilate,” and prosper. Yet Black people had no such fluidity, even if light-skinned. The “one-drop rule” ensured that even the smallest amount of Black ancestry conferred an absolute identity of Blackness. Thomas Jefferson, and later the South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond, both had children outside of marriage with Black women who were denied recognition as “heirs.”
Rachel Dolezal seems not to understand this fact proven by history, that “a white person can have a black child.” Blackness is neither a feeling nor a state of mind, but rather a “way of being.” Rachel Dolezal doesn’t wear blackface in order to escape judgment and persecution, but rather to “gain authority” over the idea of Black identity, which is a “very white” thing to do, as was suing the historically black Howard University for racial discrimination. The reason she was able to channel so much energy into maintaining her public persona is probably because she didn’t need to “save any energy for just being herself,” which is the real challenge. In the end, the...
(The entire section is 892 words.)