I mean, you got the first sort of mainstream African-American who’s articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man. –Senator Joseph Biden, in faint but unfettered praise of Senator Barack Obama
Recently the New-York Historical Society and the Studio Museum of Harlem curated “Legacies,” a fascinating show at N-YHS in which contemporary artists reflected on slavery. One of the commissioned pieces that accompanied the display was a short film by artists Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry. It featured McCallum, who is white, and Tarry, who is black, configured as a “twinning doll”–a nineteenth-century toy that has two heads, one at each end of a common torso. At the doll’s waist is attached a long skirt or a cloak. Held vertically, the skirt falls and obscures one head. Flipped one way, it becomes a white doll. Turned upside down, the skirt falls the other way and suddenly it’s a black doll. In the film, McCallum and Tarry, joined at the waist by some feat of pixilated trickery and dressed in nineteenth-century clothing, flip head over head down a long dark marble corridor, first a white head, then a black head, first a white man, then a black woman, first a Thomas Jefferson, then a Sally Hemings. As they describe it, “the races are joined head to toe…continuously revealing and concealing one another.” Such an interesting metaphor for the state of our union.
When I inquired further, McCallum told me that there was an old children’s song about the dolls: “Turn you up/Turn you back./First you’re white/Then you’re black.” I tried Googling those words in hopes of finding a recording. Instead I turned up a satirical piece by rocker Lou Reed, “I Wanna Be Black,” in which a (presumably hypothetical) “I” desires “to be black” as an escape from a neurosis of whiteness. Actually, the word “white” is never used in the song. It’s alluded to in the chorus–obliquely but with crystal clarity nonetheless: “I don’t wanna be a fucked-up middle-class college student any more.” According to these lyrics, whiteness is a dull preserve defined by respectable class status, college education and world-class angst; black people have ever so much more fun, what with having “natural rhythm,” “a big prick,” a “stable of foxy whores” and “get myself shot in the spring” “like Martin Luther King.”
The jolly entertainment of switching identity from white to black and back again is not the exclusive province of frat boys slumming around as pretenders to ghetto life. “Jungle parties” are still good clean fun at country clubs, at Halloween parties down at the precinct and in the unfortunate confusion that is Kevin Federline. The inverse–switching from black to white and black again–is more freighted. Blacks who present themselves as clean and articulate and sober and important risk being viewed as false, elitist or duplicitous. “Acting white” has all these connotations. Whites “acting black,” on the other hand–i.e., any coded masquerade of down and dirty–tend to be read as cool or maybe disaffected or, at worst, stuck in some stage of rebellious adolescence.