Saturday, June 21, 2008

I am black

For the first time in the history of this nation, we have a man of African American descent as the nominee of a major American political party for the highest office in the land.∗ We have a black as the Democratic candidate for president. Or do we?

My paternal grandparents emigrated from small villages in southwestern Sicily in the province of Palermo around the turn of the 19th Century. My wife and I visited the region in 1992. I brought along the usual tourist guides, but also a book on the history of Sicily and the ethnicity and culture of its people.

We stayed in a little coastal town called Marinella on the southwestern coast of Sicily. Just down the road from our hotel were the ruins of Selinunte, a major city-state founded by the Greeks sometime between 651 and 628 BC. We walked to the site and made our way along a broad expanse leading to the gigantic ruins of the Acropolis of Selinunte. All along the way we were surrounded by huge columns lying scattered about like a child’s building blocks.

In its time, Selinunte had rivaled Athens in its splendor, but like Sicily itself, was subject to the predations of Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, French, Germans, and Spanish, among others. Often the occupier de jour imported black slaves from Africa. The result today of this ethnic turnstile is a hardy race of… Of what?

I have over the course of many, many years filled out innumerable forms listing my race as “white.” Given what I discovered on my travels to and readings about the “old country,” perhaps I could just as easily have written black or African-American. Who knows -- my grandparents may well have had the blood of black slaves running through their veins. I’d have to admit, I’m not very black. My olive complexion, American-Italian socialization, and lack of jumping ability would belie any claim to the contrary. More importantly, I have not lived the black experience in American society.

Still, it’s an interesting thought, isn’t it? Especially when one considers that DNA studies from the National Geographic Genographic Project, suggest that all humans descended from a single African ancestor who lived some 60,000 years ago.

So perhaps Barack Obama, with a black Kenyan father and a white Kansas-born mother, is not our first major African-American presidential candidate. Perhaps others have “passed” and preceded him. More to the point, should it matter? It doesn’t to me. I am black.

*There have been black candidates for president: Shirley Chisholm, Senator Carol Moseley Braun, Lenora Fulani, Jesse Jackson, Alan Keyes, and Al Sharpton.

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