Black women's choice

May 18, 2007|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON -- I don't doubt Oprah Winfrey's marketing magic, although we don't know yet whether she can do for politics what she's done for publishing. Her endorsement of the candidate Barack Obama may not be as successful as it was for the author Barack Obama.

But ever since she gave a nod to the Illinois senator on the Larry King show, Oprah has brought some extra attention to a familiar and not always welcome question. Are African-American women, a large and loyal subset of the Democratic Party, going to be torn between two firsts?

Right now, black support is split about evenly between Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Senator Obama. But while the polling numbers are small, there's strong evidence of a gender gap. Mr. Obama has a comfortable lead among black men, while black women - Oprah notwithstanding - overwhelmingly favor Mrs. Clinton.

I raise this because black women in America have historically had the pieces of their identity sliced and diced - and they've been asked to pick one.

This tension goes back to Sojourner Truth's famous response to the ministers at the Women's Rights Convention in 1851. After listening to the white men defend women's inequality and gentility, the former slave reportedly asked, "Ain't I a woman?"

There were racists in the women's rights movement, but there were also sexists in the civil rights movement. After the Civil War, black women were expected to step back and support an amendment extending suffrage only to black men.

Of course, we don't need to go back that far to see these tensions. In his infamous confirmation hearings, Clarence Thomas described the sexual harassment charges against him as "a high-tech lynching," thereby defining his opponents as racists. His African-American accuser, Anita Hill, was cast in female terms as "a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty."

Ms. Hill, now a Brandeis University professor, remembers many people who thought that believing her would "be denigrating to African-American men. They couldn't understand about the denigration of African-American women. They didn't even see my race; they saw me as a woman."

Time and again, whether during the O.J. Simpson trial or the Mike Tyson rape case, black women were often expected to take "sides." And during the Don Imus debacle, "nappy-headed hos" was labeled a "racist slur, " as if "ho" were a unisex epithet and the only problem was that the man hurling it was white.

Now, in the presidential race, we have both a white woman and a black man in the top tier of contenders. At the same time, these are candidates who have, in many ways, transcended their race and gender.

It's no news that Mr. Obama is biracial and multicultural, the son of a white mother from Kansas and black father from Kenya. One of his ancestors was even a slaveholder. He shares a compelling philosophical and biographical desire to overcome racial divides, to see a world in which we don't have to choose between pieces of our identity.

At the same time, Hillary Clinton has emerged from at least two classic female roles - first lady and wronged wife - to become a senator and front-runner. Indeed, she's seen more as the establishment candidate than the female candidate. And she's honing an image of Caring Commander in Chief.

Some folks are still asking whether the country is "ready" for a black or a female president. But for many African-American women, facing two attractive candidates is a pretty nice dilemma.

It would be ironic if these transcendent candidates heightened our tired identity politics. I'm betting, or hoping, they may help lay these conflicts to rest. But it's early in a campaign, and in a conversation likely to offer juicy fodder for a talk-show nation. Oprah, are you listening?

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is

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