Con Games: Black Like Thee With Spike, Skip, and Barack

When asked to make a black-and-white choice on his Census form, the President of the United States chose "black." He could have said African-American or Negro or written in "multi-racial." He could have checked white because of his mother from Kansas--or even "some other race."

But Barack Obama really is the first black President: you could look it up.

Even so the walls they are a'fallin', and there is even more persuasive evidence as to our common racial bonds coming from the strangest of places: Spike Lee and Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr.

Both the filmmaker and the Harvard professor--featured on television shows about history and genetics--have been proud of their African-American heritage, sometimes militantly so. Spike Lee's Buggin' Out famously asked of an Italian pizza parlor owner, "Yo, Sal, how come there ain't no brothers on the wall?" Skip Gates famously asked a Cambridge police officer why he was arresting a black man in front of his own home. For Gates and the cop, a cold one with President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden was their just reward.

The shows -- America Beyond The Color Line and Who Do You Think You Are? -- tell a different story about being black (and white) in these here United States. As the host of America Beyond The Color Line on PBS, Gates found himself out to be some 70 percent white European; for good measure, the chair of the African-American studies department at Yale was a direct descendant of Charlemagne.

We won't know Spike Lee's story until the next episode of Who Do You Think You Are? but we do know that he ends up finding a living relative, an older woman who is white enough to be the mother of Johnny and Edgar Winter.

That's right: Skip Gates and Spike Lee are white, at least in part, and they never even knew it. Their minds are blown by the news: you can see the shock on their faces. Is that a game-changer for them? Well, maybe. In "Ending the Slavery Blame-Game," an op-ed piece just penned for The New York Times, Gates calls upon Obama to re-frame the reparations debate with the acknowledgment of African complicity in the slave trade. The President can do so, according to the Harvard professor and TV host, "thanks to an unlikely confluence of history and genetics."

"While we are all familiar with the role played by the United States and the European colonial powers like Britain, France, Holland, Portugal and Spain," Gates writes, "there is very little discussion of the role Africans themselves played. And that role, it turns out, was a considerable one, especially for the slave-trading kingdoms of western and central Africa. These included the Akan of the kingdom of Asante in what is now Ghana, the Fon of Dahomey (now Benin), the Mbundu of Ndongo in modern Angola and the Kongo of today's Congo, among several others."

Would Gates have made such a claim before his genetic awakening? Maybe. But now we can't help read his piece on slavery without seeing him as both a European writing about Africa and an African-American writing about Europe. Blaming blacks for slavery? From the evidence, his mind got blown and he will never look at the world the same way again.

And that's a good thing for everybody, of course. Not matter what box you checked on the U.S. Census, it's a small world after all. Three of the most prominent blacks in the country are also three of the most prominent whites. Race ain't what it used to be in the United States, and with good reason. Mix and match and what you get is America, often misshapen, but all the more beautiful for its many shapes and shades.