It is interesting to note that fifty-four years ago (1961), John Howard Griffin, a white native of Dallas, TX, published Black Like Me, his personal account of riding Greyhound buses and hitchhiking through the segregated South disguised as a black man (with the help of doctor-assisted ultraviolet skin treatments). He did this to expose the difficulties faced by African-Americans during the racially turbulent period of the Civil Rights movement. Although he received many letters of praise and support for what he’d done, he was also met with hostility and numerous threats. Griffin eventually fled to Mexico for safety.
Before that, in 1948, another white man, Pulitzer-prize-winning writer Ray Sprigle, disguised himself as black to write a series of articles entitled, “I Was a Black Man for 30 Days.”
Also worth noting is Grace Halsell’s Soul Sister, her 1969 book about changing the color of her skin in order to discover what it was like to be a black woman in the United States.
Of course, this kind of blackness is temporary. Whites pretending to be black can always make it back to the safety of the white world. Trayvon Martin and Walter Scott did not have this option. So it's no wonder Rachel Dolezal is viewed with a certain degree of suspicion and distrust.
Some have compared her to Chet Haze, Iggy Azalea, M&M, and John Meyer. But she is different from any of these pop starts. Different too from the authors who donned black skin temporarily to write books.
Dolezal did not attempt to co-opt black experience for financial gain. Hers is not the historical insult of "black face" as some claim. As Jelani Cobb points out, she went to work shouldering the burden of African-American causes at the NAACP of all places. Her “outing” has now become the story. And not the work that remains to be done.
We are in a peculiar moment of our evolution. The endless chatter around the specious and confining category of race is an effort to come to terms with our shifting identity. It is an opportunity for society to say what it will and will not allow. People are taking sides and mounting arguments. The NAACP is disappointed. The Today Show interview begins amiably enough but Matt Lauer eventually grills Dolezal as if she were a Nazi war criminal. ("When did you begin to deceive people?") Jon Stewart responds with a simple“Whaaat?” In the end, it is Rachel Dolezal -- and only Rachel Dolezal -- who must decide who and what she is.
A famous literary critic was once asked to define tragedy and came up with this response: “A tragedy is when society wins.” Look at King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, or Othello, and you will see the truth in this. What’s at stake for people like Dolezal is the same as what’s at stake for everyone: How to be your authentic self in a world full of people who would have you become otherwise—some fiction they are willing to accept and tolerate.
All of this is playing out within a few days of the sixth anniversary of Michael Jackson's death (June 25, 2009). Jackson’s reconstructive surgeries were criticized as far away as Pravda as a pathetic attempt to become white. When asked about all this during their brief marriage, Lisa Marie Presley once answered that Jackson was simply exercising his prerogative to redefine himself. America may be in the midst of an identity crisis, but this desire for self-redefinition is as old as the Pilgrims and as mythic as Jay Gatsby. It’s a stony road. Not everybody makes it. But Jackson said it best: In the end, it won’t matter if you’re black or white.
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