• February 2009
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The Only Black Dude

CNN has been consistently featuring a black dude in most of its recent stories.  I see this black dude sitting in a room full of white people a lot.  Sometimes, the white people are only men.  They smile and look intently at this black dude as he talks.  Sometimes, the cast changes and there are a few white women thrown into the increasingly familiar news clip.  Sometimes, the setting of the clip changes and the black dude will not be sitting in a room full of attentive white people.  Just this Sunday on CNN the black dude was standing in front of a podium.  Talking again.  The white people were behind him this time.  And in front of him.  The ones seated in front of him raised their hands in an orderly fashion and asked the black dude several questions.  The white people standing behind him nodded their heads approvingly as the black dude answered.  All of them smiled wide authentic smiles.  The white people in these clips always seem to be smiling.  Sometimes, the sound is turned down too low on my TV and I wonder what the black dude is saying that is making the white people so pleasant.  Normally, when there is a black dude in a room full of white people…well, let’s just say, the smiles appear just a tad bid TOO broad…a tad bit TOO forced.  A tad bit TOO self-conscious.

Every time I look up from the papers I’m grading or the book I’m reading and catch this recurring “only black dude” clip, it takes a second for me to remember that this black dude is the president of the United States.

The flood of choked emotion that used to fill my throat when President Obama’s image flashed across the TV screen has melted into something else now.  Far from awe that he has accomplished what many (including myself)  thought to be impossible, I now look at the news clips and wonder about the rules of professional survival black folks gradually learn from the moment they set foot on a college campus.  Rules that they vehemently fight, but are eventually forced to accept once they have had innumerable awkward encounters with the many white people who fill up the rooms they will walk into for the rest of their careers.  

Does Pres. Obama have to be careful about his tone when he is angry?  Does he have to make certain that he does not come off as too frightening?  Too forceful?  Too intimidating?   Does he, like other only black dudes, make certain that he keeps at least a half smile on his face most of the day so as to make his co-workers comfortable around him? So as not to appear as too unapproachable?  He’s a skinny black dude, which helps him in the making-white-people-comfortable department.  But, he is tall and highly intelligent and even when he is not trying, walks with a slight pimp stroll.   Is Pres. Obama required to be acutely aware of how all of these traits he can not control still have to be controlled in some way because he is the only black dude?

Are the white people actually required to listen to him when he talks?  I wonder if they are finding it hard to resist the knee-jerk reaction to wait for the guy who is in charge to say something important when he opens his mouth.  Even more than the rules that Barack has to follow, I find myself terribly intrigued by how well the white people are doing when it comes to adjusting the superiority complex they will never admit they have when the only black dude in the room speaks.  Do they even realize now that they do it?  That their minds wander for a few seconds when the only black dude shares his idea/proposal/report and they have to snap themselves back into attention?  That, occasionally, they don’t quite believe in the effectiveness of his idea/proposal/report until the white dude restates the same idea/proposal/report, only changing a few words here and there. 

Do those smiling eyes turn to Joe Biden for a quick second after Pres. Obama relays his plans for the country?

There has been much discussion about what Pres. Obama’s presence in the oval office represents for this country.  That he serves as a symbol of how extraordinary our nation is.  To elect a black dude to the nation’s highest office is, indeed, a testament to our ability to move on from a shameful past.  However, what I long to see on CNN are more people seeking to find an answer to my question.  (Or at least having the courage to ask it.)  When he is sitting at a conference table in a room full of the highest ranking CEOs?  When he is signing legislation to close Guatanamo Bay?  When he is meeting with the staff he himself has hand selected?  Why is the man who made history by ushering in the era of racial equality still the only black dude in the room?

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