Authentic Voices

AOL's re-launch of its Black Voices website strives to be more intentionally "black," but sometimes black voices have white mothers.

MOTHER AND SON: UrbanFaith's Christine Scheller with her late son, Gabe.

“During the early days of the AOL Huffington Post merger, we had a chuckle when Arianna Huffington was named editor-in-chief of an array of AOL blogs outside her area of expertise … perhaps most glaringly, Black Voices.” So began an article in The New York Observer about the site’s re-launch.

“There’s no need to cringe anymore,” said the writer, Emily Foxhall, because Huffington has hired a black managing editor named Rebecca Carroll and a black strategic advisor named Sheila Johnson. They, in turn, will hire a core of black writers and editors.

“It’s not black voices if it’s not black,” Carroll said. “Oftentimes when white reporters and editors go out to cover black America what happens is you get the same headlines. That’s because it’s about black folks as opposed to being of black folks.”

Carroll makes a good point. As news and religion editor at Urban Faith, I’m keenly aware of my own limitations in communicating stories that reflect authentic African American experience and interest, which is why I’m enormously grateful for the black men and women who contribute the majority of UF’s content.

“I feel like I have been working on this idea of creating a place where people can go and read about and learn about and understand a nuanced narrative about race for my whole life,” Carroll said.

Creating a nuanced narrative about race that excludes both the positive and negative contributions of non-blacks to black life and history, however, is like celebrating our first African American president and ignoring the fact that he was born of a white mother and raised by white people.

In her book, Race Mixing: Black-White Marriage in Postwar America, Renee Christine Romano writes, “The taboo on intimate personal relationships between blacks and whites served a crucial function in creating the American racial order. Arguably, without such a taboo, the very categories we now think of as ‘black’ and ‘white’ would not have existed in the same way.”

She notes that in 1960, when the United States Census Bureau first tracked interracial marriages, there were 157,000 of them (roughly one-third of which were black-white). In 2000, there were more than 1 million (363,000 of which were black-white). In 2010, the figure rose 20 percent to 4.5 million interracial marriages.

The future is brown, not black or white. In advocating exclusivity, Carroll may be clinging to a past that only really existed in our racialized society’s imagination. Urban Faith, on the other hand, has a specific, yet broad vision. Here’s how it was described in a 2008 pre-launch email I received from editor Ed Gilbreath:

Urban Ministries, Inc. is an African American-owned company. Our core audience is black, and UrbanFaith.com will naturally be rooted in that perspective. At the same time, recognizing the beauty of diversity in God’s kingdom, UrbanFaith.com will strive to also be ethnically inclusive and multicultural in flavor.

Today, urban culture transcends racial boundaries and covers many different socio-economic backgrounds. What’s more, Christians who are engaged in the exciting call to urban ministry come from all races and walks of life. UrbanFaith.com will be more about a way of looking at the world than where folks live or the color of their skin. It will be both for those who make their home in an urban setting and for those who care about the people, culture, and issues related to urban life.”

This description accompanied an invitation to write for the site. At the time, I had a lot of confidence about the contribution I could make. I had raised a black son, after all, and he encouraged me to “go for it.”

His affirmation is important because after he died by suicide one month later, I couldn’t imagine writing for any audience, let alone an African American one. Among myriad losses, I experienced a profound sense of identity dislocation. For 24 years I belonged to a racially integrated family and suddenly I didn’t feel like I did anymore because our one non-white member was gone.

Rereading Ed’s description, I’m assured that my values correlate with his vision, but I also have slowly regained both my confidence and my sense of identity. I will always have carried a black child in my womb. My surviving son will always only have had a black brother. My husband will always have fallen in love with and adopted my biracial baby. Ours will always be an integrated family; it’s just that now this defining feature is veiled.

There’s something else too, and that is the grief I share with too many black mothers who’ve watched their young, brilliant, beautiful black sons come to tragic ends.

Carroll is apparently tired of hearing about this. She intends to avoid “black headline fatigue” that emphasizes negative statistics about African Americans. Urban Faith avoids dwelling on these statistics too, but we don’t ignore them.

Perhaps when Carroll told Foxhall that she sees the audience for Black Voices as “a broad one of ‘race-conscious, race-savvy people,’” what she really meant was that she is after HuffPost’s affluent audience for whom these statistics don’t represent sons and cousins and brothers, but instead reinforce stereotypes about a dangerous other.

UrbanFaith is up to something else. That something resonates with me not only as a mother, but as the daughter of a cherished only child and a former gang leader who came to faith through the work of urban ministers. My earliest memories are city ones.

Psalm 46:4 says, “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells.” My son resides in that city and one day I’ll be reunited with him there. Then I won’t feel the need to explain why my voice belongs in a conversation about black life. In the meantime, I’ll do my best to bring you stories that convey authentic interest–and, I hope, you’ll let me know when I miss the mark.

About the author, Christine A. Scheller

Christine A. Scheller is a widely published journalist and essayist, and an editor-at-large at UrbanFaith. She lives with her husband at the Jersey Shore and in Washington, DC, where she helps facilitate dialogue between scientific and religious communities.
  1. Christine, I am thrilled to find out about Urban Faith and what it is trying to do. At the same time, I am so sorry about Gabe. Thank you for, I can only think of the spanish word, “luchando” on behalf of and alongside many.

  2. Thank you for reading Marlena, and for your kind words. I had to use Google translate to figure out what you were saying. I will keeping “fighting.” I hope you will keep reading and commenting. Blessings to you.~

  3. This writer would say Gabe wasn’t black, but African American, because he descended from an African birth father, not North American slaves. What do you say Urban Faith readers: Is he being picky or precise?

    http://thefreshxpress.com/2011/05/why-africans-cant-be-black/

    • Christine, it is a difficult conversation when trying to differentiate Black and African-American. Sociologically, Black and African-American are technically within two different social categories. Black is a racial marker, while African-American is an ethnic marker. Being black is the reality of certain physical traits. I actually think the writer switches the two, which is what I disagree with. Most everywhere in the world my race is acknowledged first, my blackness, not my African-Americanness, that comes out later. It is like Richard Wright and Franz Fanon articulations of being black in a predominately – in power – White world. Their context was more than just America, it was global, though primarily European. With the terms reversed I agree with his perspective, there is something about the identity which emerges from American Slavery and subsequent injustices that is particular and formative (i.e. some expressions within the African-American Christian tradition).

      The difficult thing is that race and ethnicity mesh together often and people choose there own terms at times, which confuses those on the periphery of the conversations (I have had numerous conversations with students about how labels work and don’t work in regards to race and ethnicity). Race/Ethnicity are also ever-changing. What was an ethnic-group at one time may no longer be in a century. For example no German, French, or British person is purely one ethnicity, they are the amalgam of tribes and clans of people who traversed to those lands. They may be of one race, but not ethnicity. IN our contemporary age we are interacting with ethnicity in the here and now, but as a dynamic element that is changing before our eyes especially with a rapidly shrinking world.

      Sorry, that was a long response, in brief I agree that there is a difference between Black and African-American, but I thin the writer’s terms are backwards.

  4. Pingback: What I Wrote This Week @UrbanFaith: July 4-8 « Exploring Intersections

  5. Thanks so much for your helpful comment Neosoulist. Gabriel was/is half Tanzanian, identified as black, and was seen as such by whites, but not always by other African Americans, so it’s a topic I’ve thought a lot about. Blessings to you.~

  6. Here’s an interesting discussion from The Atlanta Post called “Identity Politics: The Ambiguity of Race and the “End of Racism”:

    http://atlantapost.com/2011/07/11/identity-politics-the-ambiguity-of-race-and-the-%E2%80%9Cend-of-racism%E2%80%9D/

  7. I’ve thought alot about this topic recently. It’s complex for sure, but I’ll try to express my thoughts cogently.

    First, authenticity to me seems to stem from and be based on adherence to a standard. We consider a dollar bill “authentic” if it has all the characteristics of currency that the government says it should have. Otherwise, it’s branded counterfeit. Relative to the authenticity of a voice, to me the real issue is, what is the standard? And who determines it? Can anyone delineate a set of criteria that defines an authentic black voice? The particulars on such a list would no doubt vary, but isn’t it reasonable to posit that at least one criteria would be that the voice comes from someone black/African American? As a Christian African American woman, I’m keenly aware of my obligation to embrace unity and the diversity which God creates, which makes this issue difficult for me. Nonetheless, right now, my feeling is that if white writers, film makers, etc. want to comment on the black experience, why not do it from an acknowledged lens of a sort of “representational” authencity? Meaning, accepting the role of an interested observer, and perhaps even a participant in the culture by way of childbearing, marriage, etc. But those experiences will always be as a white person. We can all have an “authentic” voice, but I think it irritates African Americans to always see/hear whites writing about us and our issues, telling our stories (meaning, those which center around black culture, people, etc.), because we know that their experience is limited to that of a white person’s observations of the people, situation, etc.

    Right or wrong, it somehow seems…bothersome. I realize there’s alot more to this than what I’ve expressed, but I had to start somewhere, or i was going to burst.

    I’m giving it more thought, and I might pick it up later in my own column.