White Americans really need to shut up and listen.

Yesterday, the President of the United States did an unprecedented thing: He broke into broadcast schedules and in an unscheduled press conference, showed the world the piece of paper that proves what the world already knew to be true:

He was born in America.

I was in the car, in the midst of  a million and one things, when the news came to me via NPR. I heard the term “long-form” and genuinely cracked up. “Long-form” has long been an inside joke of sorts between Angry Black Lady and her blogging minions — someone acts sketchy? We demand to see their long form. Someone refuses to be reasonable? Long-form!

I listened to what the President had to say, entirely approved of his use of the phrase “side-shows and carnival barkers,” and was incensed, if unsurprised, when I heard Donald Trump later crowing about his role in the whole sordid affair (not to mention his outrageous suggestion that he would have to set his eyes on the birth certificate personally before he would be convinced).This was a typical Obama move, frankly — POTUS is very good at separating his ego from the stupid and the trivial, tossing out bones that don’t matter, in order to protect that which does.

And I knew, just like all of us knew, that none of it would change a thing for most birthers — after all, when reason closes a door, crazy opens a window. I harbored some slim hope that Obama’s reveal might make Donald Trump go away, but didn’t really believe that slim hope to be a reasonable one. And lo – I was right.

What I did not anticipate, on any level, was how the whole sad story was playing among black Americans (update: By which I mean: I didn’t anticipate that watching the most powerful black man in history being forced to show his papers would resonate on such a deeply personal, grief-inducing level for an entire community of American citizens).

There are times in the life of a white liberal when she is smacked on the side of the head with the limitations of her understanding. There are times when a life spent trying to listen and comprehend proves not to have been enough, and new information, breathtaking information, is conveyed, and one’s breath is taken and held, as one stands before a chasmal gap, and listens to the voices on the other side.

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes at The Atlantic:

This is a racism of the bone.

My ire is not so much for those who see their interests in that frame, but for the Very Serious People, who see nothing in the fact that those who are sorry that this country wasn’t cleaved in half by Genosha, and those who believe the first black president is a Muslim sleeper agent, are all at the same party. Who with a straight face chalk it up to the inexplicable vagaries of the human mind, or mere chance.

My ire is for those who claim to know better, but do not.

I am really pissed off and quite frankly hurting. Today President Obama released his long form birth certificate to answer questions about where he was born. I can’t remember this being an issue for any other American president or presidential candidate in recent history…. While Obama’s opponent in 2008, Senator John McCain, was in fact born in Panama, it is President Obama who was forced to prove he was born here.The message to all people of color, especially African American men is: “You are not good enough.”
One last point: It’s really amazing that we’re even talking about this. In a sane world, the President of the United States wouldn’t have to release personal information to quell conspiracies about his citizenship…. To a depressingly large number of Americans, “blackness” runs counter to this country’s identity, and an African American president is, by definition, illegitimate.

The Negro was made an American through the sin of slavery but kept this identity through the sacrifices of citizenship: taxes, military duty, labor, effort, patriotism and struggle. Few acts of racism elicit more disgust among black folks descended from eighteenth-century slaves than being told to “go back to Africa” by a white person whose American heritage goes back only to the twentieth century.When birthers accuse President Obama of not having a “real” birth certificate, they’re telling him to “go back to Africa.” It’s a taunt he’s able to dismiss because he knows exactly where and when he’s from. But for black Americans descended from slaves, to question one’s birth raises perhaps a more troublesome enigma: to be born in servitude to someone, but from nowhere.

Historian Blair LM Kelley writes:

The hardened historian in me wasn’t surprised, but I was struck by the sick theatre of a sitting president making special appeal to the state of Hawaii in the effort to prove not only that his election was legitimate, but that his citizenship is valid…. I was struck by the profound disappointment of the Obama generation at the state of black citizenship. I was thinking about horror of the president having to show his papers, echoing with the millions of migrant workers, documented and undocumented who have to show papers everyday and are never pre-supposed citizens.
It hurts more than I thought it would. I’m taking it more personally than perhaps seems rational, but I feel sucker-punched.
And Baratunde Thurston (Jack, of Jack and Jill Politics), with tears welling up more than once, said this (he said it in a video, which can be seen here, but the words are so powerful, I want to pin them down. All emphasis is Thurston’s):

This has been a very difficult morning for me. I got the news that President Obama released his long-form birth certificate due to the increasing media circus surrounding claims that he is not one of us, that he is not American….

[Looking back at the history of the civil rights era], you’re reminded of the extraordinary sacrifice that has been involved in allowing all of Americans to exist as, be treated as, participate as, Americans — to be that which they are.

…[Civil rights activists] got on buses and freedom rides, they sat in, they died, in waves and waves of domestic terrorism, so that someone like me could go into a voting booth and not be asked, by some racist poll worker, to pay a tax… or pass a literacy test.

…And today, the President of the United States had to prove that he was an American to the satisfaction of the 75% of Iowa Republicans who doubt that, or the 43% of national Republicans who doubt that, or the one heinous, low-class individual who took credit for it after, Donald Trump.

…I find it hard to summarize in mere words the amount of pain and rage this incident has caused. It’s humiliating — not just to Barack Obama, not just to the office of the President, not just to black Americans and those who supported our quest for freedom. It’s embarrassing to the entire nation, that we would sit and let this happen. We have all been debased by this incident.

…My name is Baratunde Thurston. I’m heart-broken over this.

While I worry, deeply and daily, about what all this means for the President’s own safety, it’s clear that that’s far from the only worry. It’s clear that a great many of my fellow Americans still — even after members of their community have sat on the Supreme Court and made our laws and shaped our media discourse and been elected to the highest office in the land — do not feel fully free to “participate as Americans — to be that which they are.”

And that does, indeed, debase us all.

Crossposted at Angry Black Lady Chronicles.

14 Comments

  1. Don’t let them fool you for a moment. It’s ALL about racism. I know why he did it, but I also know it wouldn’t deter the fast majority who don’t want to believe he’s good enough to do the job. Like my own dear husband, the President is too polite, too dignified, to “play the race card.” The denials would be heard round the world. But we know the truth, don’t we?

    P.S. In solidarity with the President, I posted my birth certificate on my blog today. I may be white, but it’s the “long form.”

    http://gaylecarline.blogspot.com

  2. Redshift

     /  April 29, 2011

    When these bigots spout their “why hasn’t he shown his birth certificate?” or now (for some) “why did it take so long?,” the only real question is “why hasn’t any other president been asked?”

  3. dmf

     /  April 29, 2011

    Democracy

    Democracy will not come
    Today, this year
    Nor ever
    Through compromise and fear.

    I have as much right
    As the other fellow has
    To stand
    On my two feet
    And own the land.

    I tire so of hearing people say,
    Let things take their course.
    Tomorrow is another day.
    I do not need my freedom when I’m dead.
    I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.

    Freedom
    Is a strong seed
    Planted
    In a great need.

    I live here, too.
    I want freedom
    Just as you.

    Langston Hughes

  4. thank you for another insightful post. i’ve found all of this birther-nonsense to be just that: nonsense. it’s a complete embarrassment that there are americans (and not just ordinary americans, but people in a position to possibly cause good, as opposed to harm,)who are more focused on where the president was born, rather than on real problems that are actually affecting millions of americans.

  5. sue swartz

     /  April 29, 2011

    Racism, yes. Deep fear. Shame to the politicians who pushed this agenda. Shame to the citizens who pass it un unquestioning. And shame to the press for covering one damn word of it.

  6. As an American, I am embarrassed that this was ever an issue, that through over two centuries of struggle, we have not been able to set aside the ridiculous and specious idea that anyone not of the white race somehow must not be fit and must prove themselves in ways that white Americans are not. The 54th Massachusetts, The Freedom Riders, The Tuskegee Airmen… at what point has the black race not proven itself in times of fire and blood, struggle and strife?

    If this does one thing, it sets the picture firmly — anyone who still feels the need to question President Obama to any degree, is doing so for only one reason — bigotry. They can no longer hide behind “reasonable” objection. They have been exposed to the glare of the light of day and found wanting. If we are smart, we will mark this as the moment when they are no longer given a free pass to spew their vitriol, and when the healing of a divide still left over from the founding of our nation can be narrowed and hopefully closed.

  7. lilbobbytables

     /  April 29, 2011

    This times a billion.

  8. Shadow's Mom

     /  April 29, 2011

    Thank you , Emily, for another thoughtful and insightful post. The institutional racism reflected in the failure of elected officials and the media to suppress these claims appalls me. I feel ashamed that these entities with their broad-based platforms for communication have chosen to enflame rather than contain the outrageous claims of the racist fringe.

    For what it’s worth, I apologize for the behavior of those who fear change so much that they are blinded to their own poor judgement.

  9. stephen matlock

     /  April 29, 2011

    I’m sorry this happened, and – what is the word? – sad that I don’t “get” this. No, not the whole birther crap, which is just craziness, sheer and utter lunacy of the type that would get you committed if examined by a professional. I mean, I don’t get the whole symbolism of what it means to have the president release his own birth certificate.

    That’s what makes me sad, that I’m so unable to see what it means through the eyes of people I consider my own countrymen. Unless there was the general outpouring (which I’ve seen from sources other than listed here), I would not have an inkling of this grief and anger and shame.

    It’s not about me, this issue. It just frustrates me because I miss all these things and have to have patient people explain it to me.

    And I’m sorry for all this incredible mess that is caused by these crazy people, but also that people like me either don’t act or don’t know that it’s time to act.

    Thanks for collecting all this information. I need to think about this more, and then figure out what my next steps are.

    • I’m sorry it’s taken me so many days to come back here to say this, but: I so appreciate you leaving this comment. The ignorance, the “oh my, I didn’t begin to know” is the very thing I was driving at, and this “It’s not about me, this issue. It just frustrates me because I miss all these things and have to have patient people explain it to me” is the absolute bottom line — I try to take some comfort in the fact that, as humans, we can’t be not-ignorant, but we can choose to be open to knowledge (if that makes sense!).

      • stephen matlock

         /  May 2, 2011

        I’m just a single guy (well, I’m married with kids, but you know what I mean. What do you *do* about this – not just the tsk tsk, but the actual action. For me small things. Trying to see political events as I could imagine with it’s like to hear it as a minority, before I hear the “official” blowback. (Did I guess right? Was I seeing it their way?) Part of it is speaking out when necessary to point out stuff that is really hurtful. I’m not going to derail this tread about Trump, but he is more than a blowhard. He’s a cruel man with little compassion. So posting on my facebook account that I don’t like his and then moving to bump people off who claim to “like what he does”. He’s not doing anything anyone could do – but he has a bigger megaphone, and he is just 1 toothpick short of the crazy canape tray.

        Speaking what I really _think_ versus speaking what I know will keep thing _happy_ is another part.

        And eventually I get up the never to get back into the fray and post my own opinions.

        I don’t think blacks are weak people who must always be protected. I do see them as human beings show should be treated with decency and respect by men and women of good will. (And of course, extend “black” to include all other invisible and marginalized people.)

        That’s what I’ve started doing. Late, small, but I’m _doing it_

        • stephen matlock

           /  May 3, 2011

          And sorry for the typos – was typing that last night in the airport while trying to get a signal on the phone. Substitute “nerve” for “never” and that’s pretty well the gist of it.

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