Talking to Myself Out Loud: Identifying with Rachel Dolezal

There’s a great Godfrey Cambridge line in the 1970 Ossie Davis-directed action comedy classic Cotton Comes to Harlem, “Is that black enough for you?,” which likely spawned Billy Paul’s “Am I Black Enough for You” 1973 follow-up to his signature “Me and Mrs. Jones”–itself sampled by Schooly D in the 1989 rap song of the same name.

Turns out that Dolezal really wasn’t black enough, not with her disingenuous defense of her trying to pass, not without success, for African-American, which didn’t bother me so much as her over-the-top defensive birther stance that there was no biological proof of her relationship to her parents.

Then again, I’m just as guilty, if not for trying to pass myself off as black–though I often do say, when the conversation turns to race, that I’m “light-skinned”–than for co-opting black culture, as has been done by now by virtually everyone in the world.

Somewhere long ago I read or heard how white boys wished they were black, or at least certain white boys, of which I most certainly was one, once I started listening to the blues back in Madcity Wisconsin. Early Bob Dylan brought me to the Madison Public Library, Bob Dylan, who himself embraced black music and culture so tightly that he recorded with Victoria Spivey and Big Joe Williams and by himself under the blues guise of Blind Boy Grunt. And when I started listening to the blues, besides all the country and folk blues records and Chicago blues records I checked out of the library, it was the Siegel-Schwall band, then made up of three white blues players and one black, that became my biggest and lasting influence.

I make reference here to the Born in Chicago documentary featuring Corky Siegel, Mike Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield, Barry Goldberg, Charlie Musselwhite, Steve Miller, Elvin Bishop, Harvey Mandel and Nick Gravenities–all of whom learned the blues at the feet and amps of Chicago blues pioneers like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon, just as the Rolling Stones, Animals and Yardbirds were covering the same records in England.

So I can easily understand Rachel Dolezal, not to mention Caitlyn Jenner and anyone else who wishes they were born someone else or somewhere else. And as for listening to the blues and wishing I were black, well, it didn’t stop there. I went on to listen to and love country music, Cajun music, Russian, Indian, Arabic, going so far, at least in relation to country music, to affect what must be about the most blatantly phony Southern accent any guy that could never shake his Midwestern accent ever attempted, almost to the point of self-caricature.

As for being black, I always remember how I’ve enjoyed being among the few whites, er, light-skinned blacks at all black gatherings, like the first time I was in Jamaica and went to Trench Town, the Kingston neighborhood where the likes of Bob Marley gave birth to reggae, that was so dangerous and off-limits to whites that a number of residents had to be bribed to let me in. Or the first time I saw Ashford & Simpson at Radio City in 1983: It was a sold-out show, and I didn’t count more than half a dozen or so of us light-skinneds. Many years later Nick & Val’s assistant Miss Tee scolded me for not having black-eyed peas on hand for New Year’s–a Southern tradition.

“You’ve been hanging around black people so long, and you don’t have no black-eyed peas?” she asked, incredulously–then hand-delivered a big potful. It was up there with being called the “N-word” by one of the great white blues harmonica players, spoken–and taken–with great affection and respect. A fellow Rider in the Storm, he, too, had managed to leave the House in which he was born to become someone else he wanted to be.

I love how one of my dearest Facebook friends commented how race is “a social construct erected to oppress certain groups of people.”

“That is the only way in which it is a real thing–because truly at a basic atomic level there are no racial differences,” she explained. “But the social construct has made race real and has made the concept very powerful. It has been a scourge that persists too often today. Tragic and stupid….”

The ‘iconic’ Caitlyn Jenner

The New York Post, of course, splashed the Vanity Fair cover of Caitlyn Jenner on the front page, but really, a day later, this is old news. In fact, it’s been old news, really, for months.

Yes, I’m happy, too, that after all these years Jenner has now shown courage in asserting her true self. But let’s not forget the courage of Richard Raskind, the ophthalmologist and tennis pro who transitioned back in 1975 to Renée Richards and then had to fight tooth-and-nail for acceptance as a female tennis player–and who was among the first class of inductees into the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame in 2013. Or even Ellen DeGeneres, who came out in 1997 with a “Yep, I’m Gay” Time magazine cover, though like with Jenner, that was so heavily teased in advance it was no big surprise.

What’s different this time, really, is that big cash Kardashian cow. Indeed, Jenner hasn’t been an “iconic” American sports hero–as some in the media now make him out to be–in the 40 years since Bruce Jenner won the 1976 Olympic Decathlon. “Sports hero,” yes, but only “iconic” as a minor TV personality, Keeping Up with the Kardashians notwithstanding. Perhaps he’s been a person of value to society besides celebrity, but not to my knowledge, unlike say, Beau Biden, whose tragic death Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover inevitably minimalized.

But Caitlyn Jenner now has the chance to become truly iconic on her own terms, depending, that is, if she has anything more to offer her reality and ours than the trashy reality shows that has made her an icon. Her hugely promoted transition, while momentous, is just a moment in a fast-moving mass media story, not to mention a fast evolving-society in which she is now primed to play an important leadership role, should that now be her choice.