To the surprise of many whites and dismay of his supporters, Barack Obama trailed Hillary Clinton among black Americans by a 40-point margin in a recent Washington Post-ABC poll. It is possible to read this as a positive development: black Americans have transcended racial politics and may now vote for the person they consider the better candidate, regardless of race. The sad truth, however, is that Obama is being rejected because many black Americans don't consider him one of their own and may even feel threatened by what he embodies.
So just what is the nature of black American identity today? Historically, the defining characteristic has been any person born in America who is of African ancestry, however remote. This is the infamous one-drop rule, invented and imposed by white racists until the middle of the 20th century. As with so many other areas of ethno-racial relations, African Americans turned this racist doctrine to their own ends. What to racist whites was a stain of impurity became a badge of pride. More significantly, what for whites was a means of exclusion was transformed by blacks into a glorious principle of inclusion. The absurdity of defining someone as black who to all appearances was white was turned on its head by blacks who used the one-drop rule to enlarge both the black group and its leadership with light-skinned persons who, elsewhere in the Americas, would never dream of identifying with blacks.
Black identity was historically progressive in another important respect: from very early in the 19th century through the civil rights movement, it was strikingly cosmopolitan. Black leaders took a deep interest in oppressed peoples throughout the world. The Pan-African movement and early black nationalism were part of emerging notions of black solidarity. Blacks took deep pride in the Haitian revolution, and black American missionaries played an important role in the Christianization of Jamaican and other West Indian blacks. Black Americans were also open to the inspiration of black immigrants: W.E.B. DuBois's father was Haitian; James Weldon Johnson's mother, Bahamian. One of the first mass movements of African Americans was led by a Jamaican, Marcus Garvey, in the '20s. An impressive number of black leaders and civil rights icons--Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, Shirley Chisholm, Louis Farrakhan, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, to list a few--were all first- or second-generation immigrants. Before them, West Indian leaders paved the way toward involvement with city politics, especially in New York. And this cosmopolitanism extended also to non-African peoples; Martin Luther King's engagement with Mahatma Gandhi is the most famous example. Like so many other West Indians, I have personally experienced this remarkable inclusiveness in the traditional practice of black identity. Becoming a black American meant simply declaring oneself to be one and engaging in their public and private life, into which I was always welcomed.