Woodrow Wilson, Lisa Jones & Itabari Njeri:
The Irony and Wonder of Them All

By Charles Michael Byrd

You are what your deep, driving desire is.
As your desire is, so is your will.
As your will is, so is your deed.
As your deed is, so is your destiny.

-- Brihadaranyaka Upanishad IV.4.5

On March 24, I felt honored to speak before a Princeton University student task force whose professor had charged with "rewriting" OMB (Office of Management and Budget) Directive 15, the government's racial and ethnic classification guidelines. Student concerns ranged from what impact if any a multiracial category would have on monitoring racism against certain minority groups to why the multiracial community wasn't more concerned with abolishing racial categories entirely. (As to the latter, if you think the civil rights community is wailing and moaning now over the prospect of a mixed-race identifier, can you imagine the hysteria that would emanate from the NAACP, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, etc. if someone advanced a proposal to scrap all official considerations of race? Unfortunately, false racial identity politics keeps these organizations in business. As Emil Guillermo wrote last year in the AsianWeek article All Mixed Up: The debate on multiracial status gets out of control, "But it sure makes the civil rights community uncomfortable. To them, the world is black, white, and racist. Multirace would put the civil rights community as we know it out of business. It's come to need hate and racism more than the racists. Without it, the NAACP becomes the Rotary Club.")

I needed to share a strong sense of irony I felt at speaking in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs with the students, and I did so. A few weeks earlier I had viewed A&E's (Arts & Entertainment) Biography cablecast of the life of Woodrow Wilson. At best, our twenty-eighth President was highly insensitive on the "race issue," and at worst was certifiably racist. According to Biography, Wilson actively sought support from the black community during his first run for office in 1912. Once in, however, he gave them the cold shoulder and did nothing to further the cause of "racial equality" in that era.

Also during Wilson's reign, state legislatures codified Jim Crow laws all across the country; one result of this was the eventual removal of the old "mulatto" category from U.S. Census forms. So it felt odd to be speaking of a proposed multiracial identifier and of a future of racelessness in such a grand hall named after a man who would probably deem both considerations sacrilegious.

On April 19, it was my pleasure and honor to conduct a workshop on the multiracial category initiative at "Connections: A Conference on Multiracial Identity" sponsored by the Interracial Student Organization (ISO) of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut The announcement of Lisa Jones as keynote speaker, however, was one that left me scratching my head more than it needed. Ms. Jones has shown little understanding of the principle that individual self-determinism should also include the ability to name self. (Jana Wright's essay Taking shots at the Bulletproof Diva: Lisa Jones and the Multiracial Movement brings this point home loud and clear.)

The August 1995 Ebony includes a quote attributed to Ms. Jones in which she wonders whether those involved in the multiracial movement were "trying to become honorary Whites?" Her quote appears in the article, "Am I Black, White Or In Between?: Is There A Plot To Create A 'Colored' Buffer Race In America?" Though the ISO conference commenced at 10:00 a.m., Ms. Jones did not make her appearance until 4:00 p.m. when she was scheduled to deliver her address. Her "talk" turned out to be nothing more than a forty-minute reading from her book Bulletproof Diva, replete with references to "biracial nationalists" and to a "multiracial mafia." To their credit, the largely student audience didn't seem too impressed with Ms. Jones' performance, though what genuinely appeared to be a bad head cold was obviously affecting her. During a too brief question and answer session, Ms. Jones swore, in response to my inquiry, that the Ebony quote was inaccurate. Really?

Then there was the New York Times Book Review of Sunday, April 20 in which University of Pittsburgh professor Patsy Sims reviewed Itabari Njeri's new book "The Last Plantation. Color, Conflict, and Identity: Reflections of a New World Black" (Houghton Mifflin Company).

Of Njeri, a contributing editor of the Los Angeles Times Sunday magazine, Sims writes:

In the 1970's, the journalist Itabari Njeri embraced Black Power, adopting an African name, wearing only African clothes and abandoning a love for classical music that seemed incompatible with her new cultural identity. She left the movement three years later, having come to believe that black nationalism too often led to "a kind of cultural chauvinism indistinguishable from racism."

Today Ms. Njeri, a contributing editor of the Los Angeles Times's Sunday magazine, defines herself as "healthily ethnocentric." The daughter of a Guyanese-Jamaican-American nurse and a Georgia-born African-American philosopher-historian, she comfortably embraces her mixed heritage (including a great-great-great-grandfather who was a notorious English pirate), wears designer clothes and is back to listening to opera.

Farther along in the review, Sims adds:

Ms. Njeri advocates the proposed multiracial census designation, which would allow the children of interracial marriages to embrace their total heritages. She is critical of black politicians who bury the issue because they fear blurring racial lines will erode their power base. "Race was once synonymous with community for African-Americans," she writes. "But the rope attached to the anchor has become a noose, choking off social growth.... Though our own communities have to be the base from which we act, the rope attached to the anchor should be long enough to allow us to move into other communities." As this country approaches the millennium, she says, it demands "internal coalitions that transcend differences of color, culture and class, as well as those beyond the limits of group identity, to insure political and economic advancement."
That last paragraph just about knocked my socks off. Njeri is the same person who, in a New York Newsday article from March 6, 1991, states: "Out on the West Coast, there's been a debate over whether there should be a multiracial category for the census. I'm personally against it because I think all it does is perpetuate the insanity of racial categorization."

At the time, Njeri was promoting the paperback release of her previous effort, "Every Good-Bye Ain't Gone" (Vintage Books). Newsday staff writer Gene Seymour also noted of the person born Jill Moreland: "Moreland was not at all confounded or beaten down by the complexity of her life. In fact, she learned to embrace her identity -- even after she had changed her name to Itabari Njeri, as suggested by her onetime mentor, poet-activist Amiri Baraka."

Granted, six years is ample time for an individual to change his or her mind on any subject, but as recently as two years ago Ms. Njeri voiced strong anti-category sentiments on Black Entertainment Television. Could she be the advance guard of a whole slew of "political conversions" relative to the mixed-race battle? Are the Itabari Njeris of the world now deciding to jump on the band wagon of a movement that is picking up steam and growing more confident daily? Do they want us to see them as having "been down from the git-go?"

If Ms. Njeri is indeed sincere, we can only welcome her support with open arms. Who knows? Perhaps there's even hope for Amiri Baraka's diva daughter -- Lisa Jones.



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