By Marcia Alesan Dawkins
Today’s trying times bring to mind the lyrics of “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield. “There’s something happening here / What it is ain’t exactly clear.” I experienced exactly that sort of feeling when I saw Lloyd Marcus perform the “American Tea Party Anthem,” which he wrote, at a recent rally. My lack of clarity about this event didn’t come from watching a black man in country gear sing with a twang. After all, years of watching and listening to Eminem and Elvis have conditioned me to not think twice when I see an entertainer playing with racial stereotypes.
My befuddlement set in, rather, when Marcus introduced and identified himself to the crowd. As Truthdig’s Kasia Anderson reported on April 14: “Here we have singer Lloyd Marcus, who would like everyone to know, as he announced during this performance at a Boston-area tea party rally earlier this month, that he is ‘not an African-American.’ Well, you might ask, what does that make him? Answer: ‘An Americaaaaaaan!’ ” I couldn’t help but wonder why Marcus would choose to identify himself this way. And a little historical digging helped make things a bit clearer.
After the Revolutionary War, and because of the institution of African slavery, the idea of African-Americans became unthinkable to Euro-Americans. Reflecting this sentiment, Noah Webster’s first American Dictionary defined American as “a native of America; originally applied to the aboriginals, or copper-colored races, found here by the Europeans; but now applied to the descendants of Europeans born in America.” To be clear, for Webster the word American equaled white, and his dictionary labeled “Americans” as white while excluding Indians and ignoring Africans. Early American knowledge-makers like Webster (and others who published dictionaries, created school curricula and constituted a government) tried to conceal interracial relations and racial mixture by imposing their concept of whiteness on the nation and its historical narratives.
So, what does this mean for us today? Does Marcus want to be identified as a white man? Not necessarily. For starters, Marcus’ identification is one example of how African-Americans and Euro-Americans have long been conscious of our nation’s biracial heritage. Several well-known examples exist, such as Thomas Jefferson’s biracial descendants, the late Sen. Strom Thurmond’s daughter and our president’s own admission that former Vice President Dick Cheney is “the black sheep” of his family.
These biracial reports are no longer considered a big deal. Despite our history of deep and often violent racism, most Americans are somewhat aware that we have a multiracial heritage. In fact, reports such as these are usually met with a shrug. This growing ambivalence may also indicate a new take on the “one drop” rule, which for centuries held that even one black ancestor up to seven or eight generations back made a person African-American and therefore un-American.
What Marcus’ statement may mean, however, is that he probably does not want to be identified with President Barack Obama—especially considering that in this year’s census Obama identified himself racially by checking the “black/African American” box and declined to also check the white box.
Marcus’ self-concept notwithstanding, he is making a powerful double-edged statement about race in a post-racial America. On the one hand, we can infer from Marcus’ stage performance that we live in a world in which race and racism are no longer relevant since the face of our nation is now (multiracial and) African-American. Rather, personal values, character and national ideals are all that matter. Marcus’ presence at the tea party rally reveals as much, and his anthem provides some additional clues: “We’re having a tea party across this land / If you love this country come join in our band / We’re standin’ up for freedom and liberty / ’Cause patriots have shown us that freedom ain’t free / So when they call you a racist ’cause you disagree / it’s just another of their dirty tricks to silence you and me / I believe in the Constitution and all it stands for / Anyone who tramples on it should be booted out the door.” In a world where race is meaningless, claims of racism are unjustified. Freedom is all that matters and part of that freedom is identifying oneself however one chooses.
On the other hand, after listening to Marcus, we can also infer that he may be winking at us—saying that African-American may still equal un-American. After all, if African-American actually meant American and if race didn’t matter, then Marcus wouldn’t have to make the gesture. Let’s think about it. The lyrics of his anthem are all about policing boundaries of our Constitution as well as our geography, values and identities. They’re also about reminding us that these boundaries must be policed because they’ve been transgressed. The multiracial heritage that is “African-American” and “Other” has already done much to transgress these borders, particularly in the wake of Obama-mania. Marcus reminds us, “Freedom ain’t free Mr. Obama. Freedom ain’t free. …” The kind of insecurity revealed by Marcus’ words doesn’t arise unless something—or someone—threatens security. Could it be the security of our historical definition of “American” as white?
When our president self-identifies as African-American, then it is safe to say that the security of historical definitions and boundaries of whom and what is considered an “American” have been breached. Consequently, and to assuage growing discomfort, Marcus is policing those boundaries in a clever contemporary fashion. That is why an “American” hero and patriot cannot be called an African-American. He must be known, clearly and completely, as “An Americaaaaaaan!”
AP / David Duprey
Tea party anthem creator Lloyd Marcus sings during a tea party rally in Buffalo, N.Y., on April 12.