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American Quarterly 57.3 (2005) 633-658

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Racial Naturalization

Prologue: Notes of a Naturalized Son

A few years ago, I pledged allegiance to the United States of America—that is to say, I became an American citizen. Before that, I was a per-manent resident of America and a citizen of the United Kingdom.

Yet I became a black American long before I acquired American citizenship. Unlike citizenship, black racial naturalization was always available to me, notwithstanding the fact that I tried to make myself unavailable for that particular Americanization process.

But I became a black American anyway. Resistance to this naturalization was futile. It is part of a broader social practice wherein all of us are Americanized and made socially intelligible via racial categorization. My intelligibility was skin deep. Epidermal. Visually inscribed on my body. I could not cross (pass) the phenotypic borders of blackness.

And I could not escape black racial social meaning. That I had a dream did not matter. The politics of distinction, or self-presentation strategies with the intraracial signification "I am the New Negro," did not help.1 Out of racial necessity, my American black identity developed one interpellation after another.

Nor could I count on color blindness to protect me. That veil of ignorance became racially transparent.2 Color blindness helps to prevent African Americans from becoming black no more.3 Its racial ideology casts all of us in an ongoing national drama, an "American Dilemma."4

A significant part of this drama is acted out on the streets in the context of police interactions; there is no dearth of black men in leading roles. One of my earliest performances occurred only a few months after I purchased my first car, a yellow, convertible Triumph Spitfire. My brother and I were stopped by the police while driving in Inglewood, a predominantly black neighborhood in Los Angeles.

After we were forced to exit the car and sit on the pavement, I questioned whether we had done anything wrong: "We have a right to know, don't we? We're not criminals after all." Today I might have acted differently, less defiantly, [End Page 633] but my strange career with race within the racial borders of America had only just begun. It had not occurred to me that my encounter with these officers was potentially life threatening. This was one of my many racial blind spots. Eventually, I would develop my second sight.

The officer discerned that I was not American. Presumably, my accent provided the clue, but my lack of racial etiquette—mouthing off to white police officers in a "high crime" area in the middle of the night—might also have suggested that I was an outsider with respect to the racial dynamics of police encounters, that I had not internalized the racial survival strategy of performing obedience for the police.5

The officer looked at my brother and me, seemingly puzzled. He needed more information to racially process us, to make sense of what he might have experienced as a moment of racial incongruity—that we were not quite not black. While there was no disjuncture between the phenotypic cues for black identity and how we looked, our performance of blackness could have created a racial indeterminacy problem that had to be fixed. The officer could see—with his inner eyes6 —that we had the souls of black folk.7 He simply needed to confirm our racial stock so that he could freely trade on our blackness.

"Where are you guys from?"

"The U.K."

"The what?"


"You were born in England?"


We were still strange fruit.8 Our racial identity had to be grounded.

"Where are your parents from?"

"The West Indies."

At last, we were racially intelligible. Our English identity had been dislocated—falsified—or at least buried among our diasporic roots. Black was our country.

"How long has he been in America?" the officer wanted to know, pointing at me.

"About a year," my brother responded.

"Well, tell him that if he doesn't want to find himself in...


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