In the United States, racial tension has always been intensely heated and, all too often, this tension is one of the main distinguishing characteristics of American culture itself. The United States’ disconcerting history of racial tyranny includes the countless massacres set upon various tribes of Native Amerindians, as well as the horrors of African chattel slavery and its gruesomely profitable importance in the Triangular Trade. Over time, many movements and organizations have been established to fight for African American equality, even down to ensuring dignified representation of African Americans in the media (similar to the Jewish and Italian Anti-Defamation Leagues). The most prominent of these equal rights organizations is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The organization was founded in 1909 by both Black and white members with the intention of initiating consolidated efforts towards racial justice and empowerment (22), including, for example organizing– and, more importantly, funding– various social movements towards ensuring Civil Rights for African Americans. The organization is also well known for various charity efforts spent towards, for example, improving housing and school programs in African American communities to even fighting against stereotypical and degrading portrayals of minority ethnic groups in film and mainstream media, including, most famously, the protests against D.W. Griffith’s Birth Of A Nation in 1915 (13) and “the late C. Delores Tucker, an NAACP Special Contribution Fund Trustee, and others in the 1990s picketed and sued to remove sexually explicit lyrics from rap and hip-hop tracks, citing a concern that the lyrics were misogynistic and threatened the moral foundation of the African American community (24).”
The NAACP had a long standing reputation of dignity, even sometimes criticized as almost too conservative, but even in its earliest days, it was not immune to criticism about its choices as an establishment to accept or refuse to assist in certain civil rights cases. For example, the NAACP infamously declined to offer assistance or intervention in the horrifying Scottsboro Nine case, erroneously believing they were guilty and seeking to avoid ideological conflicts and political discrediting by affiliating with or interference into what was being handled by the ILD:
The NAACP thought the I.L.D. was using the Scottsboro case as propaganda for the cause of communism; the I.L.D. thought the NAACP was too moderate, willing to collaborate with the ruling class for small gains. The boys were easily swayed by both organizations but ultimately, the I.L.D. was more successful at courting their parents, and that decided the issue. (29)
In these early days, the Scottsboro case was one of the first instances of the NAACP’s intentions and goals being questioned by the public. However, recently, the once reputable organization has fallen deep into public disapproval again over seeming incompetence and lack of agency in addressing some of the most crucial needs of the African American communities. To the majority of the community that feels their influence outdated or ineffective especially, bitter resentment and a sense of cultural treachery is directed towards the now all-but-forgotten beacon of Black Nobility in Reconstruction and Civil Rights-Era America.
Some of the public outrage levied against the NAACP’s hierarchy shows concern over the redirection of charity contributions. The NAACP has a long and sordidly disillusioning history of financial mismanagement. Memorably, the Benjamin Chavis case, involving the epic downfall of what could have been a next generation Civil Rights hero, was one of the first instances of massive financial appropriation to be brought to the forefront (2). The firing of Benjamin Chavis from his short-lived (sixteen and a half months) career as president of the NAACP in 1994 was considered, at that time, “the most profound internal upheaval in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s 85 year history (2).” The controversial young minister was known for his unconventional political passion and was often considered (or misunderstood/misrepresented) as more militant that some of his elder counterparts. With a conviction dropped inexplicably for arson and substantial damage to a white-owned grocery, the activist worked his way up the political ladder in Washington D.C. to compete against the likes of Rev. Jesse L. Jackson for the NAACP presidency with the support and assistance of a Ms. Stansel, whom he later clandestinely hired off the books to undisclosed assistance in his office, “working the phones and fax machines(2)” for a pretty under the table salary of $332,400 paid out of contributors’ funding. Chavis’ cooking of the books and skimming off the top was met with not just disapproval but also lecherous innuendos of sexual misconduct including harassment and favoritism (14). While several members of Chavis’ entourage (called “The Team” by intimates) were all paid, some believe, too handsomely and rewarded too lavishly during and after the campaign, however Ms. Stansel was of particular interest because of the perception of sexual exploitation that left an all too acrid odor of indignity to defile the NAACP’s reputation (19). After Chavis’ short-lived administration, what was once an economically and financially strong and sustainable civil rights organization “faced a deficit of $3 million (19)” in 1994 and has struggled to stay afloat ever since. Sadly, what was then an unprecedented tarnish on the NAACP’s image, has only in recent years been topped by more corruption and even more ludicrous sexual scandals and even more debilitating haphazard hierarchal organization (30).
Of late, particular focus has revolved around the circumstances concerning the resignation of two more NAACP presidents, Leon Jenkins and Rachel Dolezal. The most recent and racially heated NAACP scandals involving NAACP presidents are loaded with irony: the NAACP, an organization for recognizing grand achievement in the African American community, has been handing out grand accolades to white people instead of the Colored People the Association was formed to Advance. The Donald Sterling case, for example, involves the embarrassing revocation of the lifetime achievement award from the racist, misogynist owner of the L.A. Clippers (6). In 2009, the NAACP awarded Sterling with its highest honor, in recognition of his great financial contributions (around $45,000) to the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP, and was prepared to renew or re-present his award until his own sexual scandal overshadowed his displays of charity.
“The first time Sterling was awarded a lifetime achievement award by the group was in the midst of a lawsuit for housing discrimination based upon race,” said LZ Granderson, a CNN contributor and lecturer at Northwestern University.”To decide to honor him with the award a second time, after he had paid millions to settle multiple discrimination suits … is not selling out. Selling out makes financial sense. No, considering what $45,000 means to a man of Sterling’s wealth, honoring him with awards is just giving integrity away.” (6)
In light of the scandal of the association with the sexually deviant and racist Clippers owner, Los Angeles NAACP chapter president Leon Jenkins resigned, quoted as saying “the reputation of the NAACP is more important to me than the residency (6).”
Most ironic of all things in an institution dedicated to the dignity of a race, the NAACP has risked more of its institutional credibility in a recent scandal concerning racial misrepresentation. Just as painful as the seeming betrayal of the NAACP’s mismanagement of charity and taxpayer dollars, is that Rachel Dolezal, president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of NAACP was discovered and outed for “passing” as Black. Arguably one of the most controversial public figures and women of 2015 alone, Rachel Dolezal has been pretending to be or identifying as Black for an unknown number of years, but the charade became much more public after 2007:
When she moved into her uncle’s basement in the largely white town of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, in 2004, Rachel A. Dolezal was still blond and paleskinned and identified herself as a white woman — one who had left a black husband and had a biracial child. But within a few years, [the activist’s] already deep commitment to black causes and culture intensified. Coworkers and relatives began hearing from her or others that her background was mixed race— and even that she had called herself black. (15)
Some believe the woman is, at best, completely delusional and deeply mired in self-hatred, and, at worst, deliberately and systematically making a mockery of the NAACP, the African American culture, the process of cultural assimilation and appropriation, as well as mocking the entire country’s cultural, ethnic, and racial diversity as a whole. When faced with questions of just why his daughter would go through such great strains to perpetuate such an elaborate ruse, Lawrence Dolezal offered his theory:
his daughter has long had a diverse group of friends — and black adopted siblings — and ultimately “assimilated” into the culture at the historically black college she chose to attend “so strongly that that’s where she transferred her identity.” (32)
The Rachel Dolezal scandal surfaced during a year in which the flames of ethnic and cultural conflict were fanned high. Between 2014 and 2015, several shockingly flagrant cases of recorded instances of overt white police brutality electrified the African American community. America as a whole witnessed the snatching away of the proverbial veil that prevented us from seeing this country in fact hadn’t changed its face of racism, even after the induction of a [half]Black president. Interestingly, the issue of Rachel’s passing for black also came at an unprecedented time in American history where the transgender community has also become more visible in their struggle for equality. In fact, the new transgender advocacy that’s sweeping the nation is being touted as the “new civil rights movement” as transpeople fight for right of expression and identity. Dolezal’s ethnic passing mirrors the sexual “passing” spoken of by transwoman Janet Mock in her highly laudable memoir Redefining Realness: My Path To Womanhood. Poignantly, Dolezal herself has publicly identified and aligned with transwoman Caitlyn Jenner, formerly famous as Bruce Jenner, the father of the Kardashian clan (32). What makes Dolezal’s passing so unsettling is that, unlike Janet Mock or even Caitlyn Jenner, and certainly unlike the thousands of so-called “tragic mulattoes” (13) and other African Americans who have passed for white (28), Dolezal was never in a position as dangerous, debilitating, and depressing as having to fight for equality and recognition in a world where you are at best invisible and at worst subhuman and demonized. A white woman passing as an African American woman does not grant her any increase in recognition, validity, credibility, or safety. Black men and women have historically passed for white to protect themselves from lynchings, segregation, discrimination, and, even in the present day some still pass to attempt to attain some semblance of dignified living in a hateful society that historically has legally defined African Americans as 3/5ths of a human being(10). So the Dolezal controversy begs the puzzling question: why would Rachel go to such lengths to fabricate such an intricately concocted delusion?
Many people are deeply offended by the idea that someone whose family suffered none of the horrifying systemic racism African Americans endure would seem to so gleefully immerse herself in and enjoy the trappings of black culture. And any assertion that she had good intentions but had to fib to attend Howard University or work for the NAACP doesn’t hold up: white people can, and do, do both of these things. But most infuriating to some is the idea that she may be able to retreat comfortably back into a white identity, leaving the racism she claims to have experienced as a black woman behind. (32)
First we must examine the history of passing then analyze how Rachel Dolezal turns the concept on its head and slingshots it back as a smack in the face of African American progress. Although the concept of racial/ethnic passing originated with two stories by Lydia Marie Child called “The Quadroons” and “Slavery’s Pleasant Homes” in the 1840s (27), the official term “passing” was first coined by Nella Larson in the classic Harlem Renaissance novel Passing (17), to refer to the practice of an individual removing oneself completely from their family and community to masquerade dangerously under the pretense of an entirely fabricated ethnic, cultural, and racial history and identity. One who “passes” does more than merely pretend or assume a persona, but truly embodies another race or religion (i.e. Jews passing for Germans during the Holocaust in Eastern European provinces), often at a grave cost to their sanity and lives. During cinema’s Golden Age of the 1930s-1960s, two films based on the 1933 Fannie Brice novel Imitation of Life were made in 1934 and 1959, starring Fredi Washington (an actual African American actress) and Susan Kohner (a white Jewish actress) respectively as Peola/Sarah Jane, the tragic mulatto. The film adaptations were quite critically acclaimed for their deep sentimentality and for the first time sympathizing the tragic mulatto character even as she remains a stock characterization kept just shy of fully realized, dynamic character development (4).
Beyond the silver screen, music video or catwalk, many African American actors and actresses, singers and models struggle with visibility in a white predominant industry and, besides the unspoken practice of skin bleaching and the more publicly acknowledged “media magic” of airbrushing and photo enhancement techniques, many have plain deceived the public and their producers or kindly omitted their true ethnic roots to get further exposure and success. [In]famous “passers” who have denied or politely refused to acknowledge their genuinely African American ancestry to bolster their success in entertainment have historically included Mae West, Carol Channing, Slash from the rock band Guns N Roses, Rachel Meghan Markle, Rashida Jones, Cash Warren, Jennifer Beals, SNL’s Maya Rudolph (who has been cast blatantly as a white woman, Jewish woman, and African American woman in three different films with apparently no problem being taken at face value), Journalist Soledad O’ Brien, and Wentworth Miller, perhaps most visibly passing due to his exposure of the practice by playing the “life imitates art” role of Coleman Silk in the critically acclaimed The Human Stain, a film which is credited for bringing the concept of Passing back to the mainstream modern day America (20). Significantly, one of the most revealing and/or rewarding (?) instances of passing was the instance of Walter F. White, a Black man who, at his peril, successfully infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan secret society and rituals in order to understand the organization’s clandestine plans and intentions, and allowed him to irrefutably expose Klansmen as the deliberate perpetrators of over 40 murders by lynching (35). White himself, to his credit, helped establish the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP at a time when the organization still retained its integrity and the Black community still regarded the organization’s advocacy as not only useful but vital to saving many Black lives from the lawlessness of the Klan’s bloody night rides.
Besides the practice of Blacks “passing” is also the inextricably related practice of Blackface. Spike Lee’s film Bamboozled brilliantly and prophetically analyses the history of America’s media portrayal of Blacks. Taking an evolutionary turn from first omitting/denying African Americans work on films and just “substituting” white actors who painted their faces in gruesome masquerades of the most bestial mockery, the film industry, in later times, required even actual African Americans to be cast in shamefully stereotypical roles, themselves forced to “blacken up” their own already Black skin. This humiliating practice of African Americans forced to “blacken up” was essential for the Eurocentric hegemony to reinforce the concept of African-ness as ugly and damnable, laughable, exoticised and objectified. Incredulously, even Rachel Dolezal herself criticized the Ridley Scott film Exodus: Gods and Monsters because of the decision to cast white and European actors (with deep tans) in roles that were historically Black, Pre-Arab Invasion North Africans. Outside of Hollywood portrayals, white Texas journalist John Howard Griffin took upon himself to “blacken up” to understand the Black experience in New Orleans and parts of Mississippi, historically the “heart” of the most viciously racist South. More recently, philanthropic legend and humanitarian Angelina Jolie came under heated controversy and backlash for her portrayal of mixed heritage Marianne Peal in film A Mighty Heart (8), despite her having been cited as having “Creole” ancestry.
The phenomenon of white performers “blacking up” emerged in the 19th century but was at its height when the white Al Jolson performed in blackface in the 1927 film The Jazz Singer. Blackface was popular since it was a caricature of blackness. Apart from blacking up, Hollywood has a history of ignoring talented black female actors. The legendary Lena Horne lost the role in the 1951 film Showboat to Ava Gardner and Dorothy Dandridge also lost roles due to her race during the 1950s. Not everyone agrees Jolie is miscast. Lee Papa, a professor of English, world literature, and speech at CUNY in New York City says “true ‘blackface’ was an intentional mockery and exaggeration of race, with even black people doing blackface to appear darker for white audiences. Angelina Jolie is an actor playing a character who is at least part white.” [Marianne] Pearl’s comments about race in Glamour magazine last year indicates her own ambivalence about her [own] black heritage. In the article “The woman who gave me strength” she does not use the word “black” and repeatedly refers to her mother’s heritage as “Cuban.” (8)
This percentage of mixed ethnicity in Jolie hints at a plausibility of African American heritage supported by the “one-drop rule” cited by Halle Berry in the equally controversial public assertion of her daughter Nahla’s race which Berry firmly defends as Black, despite Nahla’s white French father (3).
This is a fascinating bit of cultural development. Halle Berry would no more raise her child and send her to a “Black” primary school than would Barack and Michelle Obama. Their “Blackness” is an affectation rather than an identity forged in the “authenticity” of the streets. … we will never be free of the racism of our society until we no longer have 30% of all blacks living in poverty… so much of the pathology of the Black American community is a result of cultural pathologies (children raised by single mothers, often with multiple half-siblings, substance abuse, irresponsible behavior, the conscious devaluation of education in much of the community, and a host of other ills). For the record, the poorest American Blacks would be considered middle class in most of the world. They lag in comparative terms (and the definition of poverty increases every year) with white (and Asian) Americans and all of the efforts for the last 50 years, the “War on Poverty”, have done nothing to shrink the gap … The sad fact is that Black American communities remain deeply troubled and as a result, devalued, even as they are idealized by our cultural elites (3)
The fact that Angelina Jolie is the adopted mother of multiracial children, including (Black) Ethiopian Zahara (7) allows us to bring the discourse back full circle to refocusing on Rachel Dolezal, who has maintained passionately that, if for nothing else, she is “Black” because she is the mother of Black children. Her three adopted sons include her own Black half-brother adopted by her parents when she was a teenager as well as two fathered by her African American husband Kevin Moore in a previous relationship of his with a [“Real”] Black woman and, finally, one son, she birthed from Moore. Most disturbing and convoluted in an already confusing phenomena, Dolezal claims her Black husband was sexually and physically abusive. These allegations automatically invoke disturbing collective conscious memories of the innumerable lynchings of Black Men falsely accused by white women of rape. Thus, Rachel Dolezal reinforces as a white woman the persistent stereotype of the Black Man as abusive and sexually depraved. Rachel maintains that the abuse she endured reached a paramount leading to their divorce which led to her struggles as a homeless single mother– solidly placing her in the sympathetic role of the white woman victimized by the Black savage brute— shortly before publicly claiming her Black identity(33).
On Tuesday, Matt Lauer of NBC’s “Today” show asked her, “When did you start deceiving people?” But Ms. Dolezal, who stepped down on Monday as president of the Spokane N.A.A.C.P. chapter, pushed back. “I do take exception to that because it’s a little more complex than me identifying as black, or answering a question of, ‘Are you black or white?’ ” she said. Over the course of the day, she also described herself as “transracial” and said: “Well, I definitely am not white. Nothing about being white describes who I am.”… The term transracial has long been associated with adoptions of a child by a family of a different race. Angela Tucker, a black woman born in Tennessee and adopted by a white family in Bellingham, Wash., said it was “absolutely maddening” to associate the term with Ms. Dolezal’s story. “It means a lot to those of us who call ourselves transracial adoptees,” said Ms. Tucker, 29, a social worker who lives in Seattle. “We have grown up in a culture different than what we physically represent. We’ve had to seek out our roots. What Rachel has done is misappropriate that.” (15)
The trouble with Rachel Dolezal’s misappropriation inherent within her identification as Black is that the NAACP’s decision to grant her any position of assumed integrity or authority can be perceived as undermining the trials, efforts, and triumphs of genuinely Black individuals who daily struggle to seek representation in mainstream America. Most troubling in the [Black]face of Dolezal’s very public masquerade as an African American activist is precisely the invisibility of the majority of minorities in the United States off-screen, socio-economically repressed . The African American demographic misrepresented in the media barely manage to stand against a WASP majority that all too often ostracizes, fetishizes, and, ultimately, marginalizes individuals who seek to succeed and gain upward mobility by any means (including passing/assimilation) in a deliberately racist and ultimately unattainable Eurocentric Western society. At the time of writing, including the seminal Trayvon Martin case of 2012, the past five years alone have featured no less than 12 highly publicized murders of Black men, women, and children by police– and incalculable more unspoken and unsung (9). The fact that, while the likes of Rachel Dolezal and even Caitlyn Jenner and Janet Mock “pass” and rally impassionedly over imagined, self-constructed pains of skewed identity, real Black lives are being taken indiscriminately, callously, casually, and without harsh punishment indicates clearly that today the race has found no more safety than in the Reconstruction, with the Ku Klux Klan policing and terrorizing Black lives (that did, and do, matter).
Antics of racial mockery and displaced identities aside, the most telling– and deadly– of the NAACP’s fading prestige, especially with younger generations, was its perceived lack of satisfactory intervention in the October 2014 police killing of teenage Michael Brown in the highly publicized “Twitter Revolution” of the Ferguson, MO case, under the direction of then-President Cornell William Brooks:
…The group had been active from the outset of the Brown killing, mostly behind the scenes, from high-level meetings with the Department of Justice and local officials to putting political pressure on key players like St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch and Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson…. Despite the ongoing efforts, the NAACP and old-school clergy and activist have come under fire from leaders of a more impatient generation of protesters….During a mass, inter-faith, protest service sponsored in part by the NAACP, a mostly young crowd heckled Cornell William Brooks, the group’s national president. “This ain’t your grandparents’ civil rights movement,” Tef Poe, a St. Louis based rapper who has emerged as one of the protest movements young leaders, said after taking the stage during that service earlier this month. “For us, this is not an academic issue,” he said. “Y’all did not show up.”Tef Poe said the people who stood by him and others who took to the streets night after night following Brown’s killing, facing off with heavily-armed police, were young men mostly, some with their shirts off and bandannas tied around their faces. (18)
Although the NAACP is reported to have directly funneled substantial financial assistance into the protection of crucial private witnesses key to solidifying the character of the Ferguson officers, the NAACP still seems to be offering matters of Black Lives and Civil Rights as a playing ground for Eurocentric politics. Echoing the aforementioned tragic failure in Scottsboro, AL. 1933, the nation watched as their most precious male youth were abandoned and in the end martyred by the very intermediaries and ambassadors of the Colored community (including other groups of the States’ ethnic minorities) who were expected to defend and avenge at all costs. The NAACP’s lack of intervention financially or otherwise, willingly or unwillingly, like Pontius Pilate, washed their hands clean of sufficiently engaging the conversation of white administrative culpability and its bloody consequence. The nine Scottsboro youth had their lives bargained away due to the NAACP’s decision to quite pointedly refuse to engage in what could be interpreted as any ideological association with the anathema Communist Party fronted by the ILD who subsequently took the boys’ defense, to their peril. In short, the majority of the minority community felt the NAACP refused to aid in the manner the community felt just. Then, as now, although the NAACP eventually had come to offer financial support to the families of the Scottsboro Boys even after their refusal to take the case, the organization was called to question for what was seemed overall as “too little, too late.” Indeed, perhaps it was more speciically “too belittling, too late” in terms of truly impacting a true revolutionary paradigm shift which must begin with a hierarchal re-structuring both within the NAACP as well as official, federal branches of Western government. Huffington Post as a news source has more recently risen to mainstream prominence in part due to its objective and all inclusive coverage of nuanced issues pertaining to various subcultures of class, race, gender, and sexuality, particularly giving weight of voice to the African American and LGBTQ communities. The news outlet was quite thorough and uniquely perceptive in their coverage of the “intergenerational work” that the Brown murder was a catalyst of. Huffington Post journalist for both the Black Voices and Gay Voices subcategories Rosa Clemente comments eloquently on the backlash against the seemingly useless community Elders:
“…at some point the young people stood up in the audience turned their backs on the president of the NAACP and a lot of the clergy and started chanting and getting very upset because they felt they weren’t being heard,” Clemente said…Clemente acknowledged…last night’s powerful rejection symbolized the way in which young demonstrators are holding their leaders accountable for stagnant progress.
“It literally changed the nature of a gathering that seemed to be disconnected from the lived reality of what these young people are facing,” she said. “And when they took that space over … they did the work. And now the older generation’s work is now to repent for having let down this generation.” (11)
Administrative reform applies just as much to ideological institutions as physical ones, applying just as much to business brands as to fraternal or religio-social archetypes. Thus, the NAACP may do well to reform their image– welcoming an upgraded reputation as a force willing to satisfactorily and quickly enable and support the New Age youth, eschewing their crumbling constitution founded initially on archaic and rhetorical expectations and standards. The horrifying spectacle of African American and Latino teenagers subjected to tear gas, dogs, and clubs has been reminiscent all too vividly of 1995’s King riots and 1955’s turbulent season of boycotts, marches, and sit-ins. A vast amount of disapproval was levied against the NAACP’s refusal to bring more proactive, protective assistance and attention to the brutality against youth protesters during the Fergusen media frenzy. The NAACP was also viewed as “selling out” to side with financial contributors, networks who were opponents of Net Neutrality (16). For the NAACP to give support (in the form of accepting considerable donations from) to corporations like AOL/Time Warner and others who would undo the Net Neutrality Act, would inhibit the organic growth of grassroots social media revolution(s) that thrive on increased up to the minute media awareness via live streaming and instantly accessibly Instagram and Twitter postings, such as those which helped spread awareness and advocacy to Michael Brown’s case and most recently Sandra Bland. The alleged failure of the NAACP lies, therefore, more in the failure of their image to hold relevance and permanence in the current age. The failure lies in the disconnect with the community and the failure to signify, as an Organization as well as an Emblem or Icon, the concept of Dignity and Justice for Colored People.
**Readers: Please visit and review the following classic article on The Tragic Mulatto Stereotype https://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/mulatto/
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