Bowens: Blackness Redefined in the Michigan Congressional Delegation?

August 25, 2019, 10:22 PM by  Greg Bowens

The author, a former Detroit News reporter and press secretary to past Mayor Dennis Archer, is a local political and public relations consultant.

By Greg Bowens

Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence is an anomaly. In a state of 10 million residents, she has the distinction of being the only black and the only descendant of slavery in Michigan’s 16-member congressional delegation.  

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence

That fact could gain significance as more black people embrace the American Descendants of Slavery movement around the country, which is taking root in Michigan. ADOS, as it’s known, seeks to distinguish African Americans from other people of color, even those who consider themselves black.

ADOS calls blacks to embrace a history and culture that is uniquely African-American. Meaning, black people who can trace their family lineage to American’s “peculiar institution” get an identity, in a place and space of their own.

This might make Lawrence, as the last African-American standing in a political game of survivor, worthy of a spot on the endangered species list. It wasn’t always this way.

Who is 'black enough'?

A little background on the role of black people in Michigan’s political cohort: For 46 years there was the Rule of Two, i.e.,There shall always be two black people from Michigan elected to Congress – no more, no less, mostly male and always from Detroit. Before that, serving in Congress was a lonely job held from 1955-65 by Charles C. Diggs Jr.

The Rule of Two was broken in 2011 with the election of former Democratic Rep. Hansen Clarke. Clarke climbed the political ladder largely by touting his roots growing up in the black community at Mack and Bewick on Detroit’s east side, even though he was biracial, with a Bangladeshi father. He won acclaim fighting for Detroit and black people as a state representative, on issues ranging from unionizing to opposing the first state takeover of the city’s school system. 

Former U.S. Rep. Hansen Clarke (Photo: Wikipedia)

But once he got to Congress, Clarke embraced and celebrated his heritage as the first Bengali elected to serve in the House of Representatives. He still fought for the same causes. He still was very good at constituent services. His identity as Bengali enhanced his stature on the world stage and his popularity here.

But his actions felt like a betrayal to some blacks who would say, “Bengali? I thought the brother was black.” Clark would not survive the next election or his attempted comeback for the seat. Brenda Lawrence, who stressed her identity as an east-side girl directly descended from slavery, won. 

I first heard of the ADOS movement when it was whispered as resentment by black conservatives, grumbling that former President Barack Obama was not really black in the American sense, since his father was from Kenya.

The same mumbling came during the primary that doomed Hansen Clarke, who faced a tougher challenge in a district redrawn to include more white voters. Today, presidential candidate Kamala Harris – the mixed-race child of an Indian mother and Jamaican father –  is fighting to prove that her black life matters amid controversy about reparations fueled by the ADOS movement. Lawrence supports Harris in the presidential contest. 

The siren song of the ADOS movement is sweet. ADOS gives black folk a unique identity going back to before the country’s birth, to the first slave ship arrival off the coast of Virginia on Aug. 25, 1619. Events across the country marked the 400-year anniversary this monthr.

Divide and conquer

Black history is American history. The temptation is to use this moment and ADOS as a political weapon to argue we got here first -- before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock -- and sacrificed the most building this great country. Slavery decendants are more American than others, believers argue.

This may seem like a strong argument for black people to be included in the whole Make America Great Again phenomenon that propelled Donald Trump to the presidency and fuels his re-election efforts. But it’s not. It’s just another tool to divide people in the black community.

By identifying as the “real” black Americans, we give support to the current Trumpian nationalist movement, whose racism hides under the cover of patriotism. Black is black. Proving we got here in 1619 or 2019 is a distinction without a difference to racists. The ADOS movement won’t change that, but its political implications can be enormous if we as black voters become fractured along new artificial lines of cultural identity.

John James (Campaign photo)

Certainly, the GOP is counting on ADOS sentiments to help elect Republican John James the first African-American U.S. senator from Michigan in his race against incumbent Gary Peters. Had James courted the black vote in last year’s race against Debbie Stabenow, instead of embracing Donald Trump “2,000 percent,” he may have been able to close the gap he lost by against the Senator.

As for Lawrence, her support for Harris may not be enough against the growing ADOS movement. But the movement itself may be enough to secure her seat in Congress for years.

Rule of two, one, then none?

Ironically, if ADOS fails, some say it’s just a matter of time before it’s adios Brenda Lawrence and black representation altogether in Michigan. That might be nothing more than fear-mongering in the shadow cast across the landscape by white nationalism.

Most of us find it hard to imagine a world with no African-American presence in Michigan’s congressional delegation. Then again, before 1955, it was hard to imagine a Michigan where there was an African-American congressperson – let alone two at the same time.

At the very least, we may have gone from the Rule of Two back to a time when the first black Michigan Congressperson's election and lonely service proved that there can only be one.
And we call that progress. Go figure.

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