"Artist and composer Keith Townsend Obadike is auctioning his blackness online at eBay.com," a press release announced, setting the event from August 8 to 18. "This heirloom has been in the possession of the seller for twenty-eight years. Mr. Obadike's Blackness has been used primarily in the United States and its functionality outside of the US cannot be guaranteed. Buyer will receive a certificate of authenticity."
From here, the announcement launches into a hilariously astute slew of benefits and warnings: "This Blackness may be used for creating black art...making jokes about black people and/or laughing at black humor comfortably...accessing some affirmative action benefits (limited time offer)...dating a black person without fear of public scrutiny ...securing the right to use the terms 'sista,' 'brotha,' or 'nigga,' in reference to black people...to augment the blackness of those already black, especially for purposes of playing 'blacker than thou.'"
Obadike's warnings, framed as a series of recommendations, counsel potential buyers not to use his Blackness while, among other things, "seeking employment, making or selling 'serious' art, shopping or writing a personal check, making intellectual claims or while voting in the United States or Florida."
A Tennessee-born artist of Nigerian parentage, Obadike began his career as a producer with the Nashville and New York-based Modern Hip-Hop Quartet (MCA records). An interest in electronic music soon led Obadike into digital realms and he later studied with painter and digital artist Acha Debela and sculptor Rosie Thompson at North Carolina Central University. A sonic architect and concept artist, Obadike's award-winning projects have explored issues of race, sexuality and community online. His net memorial for Amadou Diallo, "My Hands/Wishful Thinking," a collaboration with his wife, Mendi Obadike, is particularly riveting.
Recently admitted to Yale's MFA program in Sound Design, Obadike is now in the process of moving from North Carolina to New Haven, Connecticut: packing boxes, shipping items and "selling a lot of stuff." The eBay project was partly born of this chaos.
"I really wanted to do something about commerce on the net," he says plainly. "I've been thinking about this stuff for a long timeabout these places like eBay and Explorerabout how we're supposed to just swallow them without thinking. Where are black people in all of this? [The auction block] just seemed logical to me. I wanted to highlight eBay's position and my position. I just wanted to play with it."
Much ado has been made about the power of the World Wide Web. Since its flamboyant rise in the 1990s, all manner of pundits and cultural critics have weighed in to alternately lionize or demonize the virtual medium. But no matter the commentator's orientationfrom rabid enthusiast to the anti-tech paranoiacmost agreed that the Web contains a boundless potential to transform human life. In cyberspace, where space is infinite, we were looking at manifest destiny for all.
Of course, that was before the dot-com crashbefore we learned that the Internet, by and large, was nothing more than a glorified shopping mall. In this virtual marketplace, consumers sought convenience, efficiency and relative anonymity. You want a used computer, a book long out of print, a rare coin? Head for eBay or Amazon.com. You want to know how to cook paella, build a bomb, or vomit without harming your teeth? The information is but several clicks away. If you want porn without the hassle of trench coats and dark glasses there is no better shopping than in cyberspace, where nothing sells as quickly or as continuously as sex. Above all, if you are seeking a community of like-minded individuals, no matter who you are or what your bag of tricks, there is a site out there tailor-made for you. And Obadike's action quickly attracted those Web crawlers interested in thinking about race.
To play out his theory, Obadike turned to the net's most popular auction block: eBay. From there, the 28-year-old artist would traffic in the most historically controversial of auction block commoditieshis very own Blackness.
The moment Obadike's auction went live the artist began receiving a slew of email responses. "What happens once you give away your blackness? Is blackness a self-generating product? Or once you give it, you don't have it anymore?" asks one participant. "Is this blackness gender-specific?" asks another. "I would like to use it to enable me to do that swiveling head-thing that black women do when they get mad, especially in combination with the finger-swaying signifying gesture, as I have long admired its power to inspire fear and/or respect in the party to whom it's directed; however, I have never seen this done by a black man. Will your blackness work for this purpose?
"What is the value of 'blackness?'" asks yet another. "I imagine that your price will never be met because the value is too great (I imagine this is part of your message, please confirm or deny)." Another participant wonders, "What if sexuality is tossed in too? Are prices slashed? Perhaps you should add a gender clause to your disclaimer list." Many congratulated Obadike on the boldness of his auction. But eBay wasn't amused.
"The World's Online Marketplace," which itself has come under fire in recent years for letting people bid on pornography and firearms as well as Nazi, Klan and blackface memorabilia, shut Obadike's auction down after four days, deeming it "inappropriate." Though Obadike's auction, one out of literally millions, does not violate eBay's hate and violence policy, it was still singled out for scrutiny and ultimately yanked.
"They barely monitor their auctions," Obadike contends. "So how did mine get onto their radar? And what is 'inappropriate' about it?"
To date, no one at eBay has answered Obadike's written inquiries nor attempted to further clarify their action. For the artist, however, the project's goal was to get people talking and thinking critically about the assumptions they live under. But the fact that Obadike's small auction drew such a wide responseenough to threaten his online hostis proof positive that his mission was accomplished.