Traditional images show blacks unified culturally, politically, and socially, united by race at venues such as churches and community meetings. But in the “post black” era, even though individuals define themselves first as black, they do not necessarily define themselves by tradition as much as by personal interests, points of view, and lifestyle.
Post-blackness entails a different perspective from previous generations, one that takes for granted what they fought for: equal rights, integration, middle-class status, affirmative action and political power. While rooted in blackness, it is not restricted by it. It is complex and challenges/rejects the notion that there is a correct or legitimate way to "blackness". Post-blackness has no patience with “self-appointed identity cops” and their “cultural bullying.”
The Post-Black Condition
By ORLANDO PATTERSON
Published: September 22, 2011
Much has been written on the benefits that accrued to the generation of African-Americans reaping the rewards of the civil rights revolution. But we have heard surprisingly little from those in the post-civil-rights age about what these benefits have meant to them, and especially how they view themselves as black people in an America now led by a black president. In his new book, Touré’s aim is to provide an account of this “post-black” condition, one that emerged only in the 1980s but by the ’90s had become the “new black.”
Post-blackness entails a different perspective from earlier generations’, one that takes for granted what they fought for: equal rights, integration, middle-class status, affirmative action and political power. While rooted in blackness, it is not restricted by it, as Michael Eric Dyson says in the book’s foreword; it is an enormously complex and malleable state, Touré says, “a completely liquid shape-shifter that can take any form.” With so many ways of performing blackness, there is now no consensus about what it is or should be. One of his goals, Touré writes in “Who’s Afraid of Post-¬Blackness? What It Means to Be Black Now,” is “to attack and destroy the idea that there is a correct or legitimate way of doing blackness.” Post-blackness has no patience with “self-appointed identity cops” and their “cultural bullying.”
What this malleability means, according to nearly all the 105 prominent African-Americans interviewed for this book, is a liberating pursuit of individuality. Black artists, like other professionals, now feel free to pursue any interest they like and are no longer burdened with the requirement to represent “the race.” Indeed, when they do explore black themes, as most still do, they feel at liberty to be irreverent and humorous. Thus Kara Walker, a typical post-black artist, unhesitatingly “mines modern visions of slavery for comedy without disrespecting slaves.” There are no sacred cows, not even the great civil rights leaders. The artist Rashid Johnson is typically candid in a way many older African-Americans are bound to find hurtful and ungrateful. According to Touré, some of Johnson’s work says, “These people are our history, so honor them, but also, these people are history, so let’s move on.” Ouch!
Post-blackness also means an expanding of collective identity “into infinity.” This involves a radically new inter¬cultural fluency, partly exemplified in hip-hop but also in the new hybrid genres challenging its hegemony. For ¬every Eminem there is a post-black Santigold, who counts the Pixies and punk rock among her strongest influences. Oddly, there is no mention of the retro-futuristic singer Janelle Monáe, whose portrayal of an android as the Other — pamphlets listing Monáe’s “Ten Droid Commandments” for individuality have been handed out at her concerts — has to be the ultimate in post-blackness.
Such fluency undergirds complete ease in interethnic relations. Touré, himself married to a Lebanese-American, praises the effortless “mode-switching” of celebrities and leaders like Oprah Winfrey and President Obama: “Blackness is an important part of them but does not necessarily dominate their persona.” This allows them not only to trust and be trusted by European-Americans, but to seamlessly display the many forms of blackness when the occasion demands.
This all sounds idyllic, but there are problems. To his credit, Touré — a correspondent for MSNBC, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and the author of three previous books — devotes nearly half of “Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?” squarely, if not always successfully, to confronting them. If blackness has become so infinite and malleable a thing, wherein does it exist? Touré insists that there is a “core” there and that “who I am is indelibly shaped by blackness.” Nonetheless, many blacks, including members of his own generation, may wonder if there is anything left, as Touré discovered one terrible night in college. During his freshman year at Emory, he had hung out mostly with white friends, but soon enough was spending “all my social time with black students.” Later on, after a party at the black dorm, a large black man from Alabama barked at him: “Shut up, Touré! You ain’t black!” Devastated, Touré spent the rest of the night in the soul-searching that eventually led to the present book.
Helping him to understand, in the words of Henry Louis Gates Jr. (an interviewee), the core beneath the “multiplicity of multiplicities” of ways to express blackness were the many successful people he spoke to. Post-black identity, we learn, resides in the need to live with and transcend new and subtle but pervasive forms of racism: “Post-black does not mean ‘post-racial.’ ” This new racism is invisible and unknowable, always lurking in the shadows, the secret decisions of whites resulting in lost opportunities blacks never knew about or even thought possible: “There’s a sense of malevolent ghosts darting around you, screwing with you, often out of sight but never out of mind.” Even so extraordinarily successful a person as Elizabeth Alexander, the tenured Yale professor and inaugural poet, claims to be haunted by “a continual underestimation of my intellectual ability and capacity, and the real insidious aspect of that kind of racism is that we don’t know half the time when people are underestimating us.” Touré, though he doesn’t call it that, seems to have unearthed here a new post-black sociological evil: counterfactual racism.
Less metaphysical accounts of what constitutes post-black identity turn out to be nothing more than the shared experience of living with, and overcoming, lingering old-fashioned racism, of learning to ignore the white gaze, along with the added burden of disregarding the censoring black one. This sounds remarkably like a black version of what Alan Dersho¬witz calls “the Tsuris Theory of Jewish Survival,” in which assimilated American Jews desperately need external troubles and imagined enemies to maintain their identity.
Touré is at his best in his finely delineated observations of the joys and dangers of post-blackness, whether it is being lived or being staged. He offers a wickedly funny account of a performance piece by the artist William Pope.L, some of whose “best-known projects are his crawls, where he dons a business suit and crawls on hands and knees through miles of Manhattan.” During one such performance, in Tompkins Square Park, an older black man accosts a white man who is videotaping Pope.L, thinking that the videographer is humiliating a homeless brother. “What are you doing showing black people like this?” Pope.L tries to explain: “I’m working. . . . I create symbolic acts.” There is generational bewilderment: “What is a symbolic act? Crawling up to the white man, or what?!”
Touré fully assays the “complex and messy and fluid” possibilities and dangers inherent in post-blackness in a dazzling deconstruction of the tragicomic art and life of Dave Chappelle. Utterly uninhibited by black or white gazes, Chappelle irreverently cast a sharply revealing light on black life that drew a multiracial audience of millions to his Comedy Central routines. But did he go too far in his comic mining of traditional black postures and vulnerabilities? Touré suggests that, in the end, Chappelle came close to both prostituting and pimping the black life he had once so endearingly parodied, and that in a terrible moment of self-recognition he realized that his “comic mouth has written checks that his body is afraid to cash. . . . The freedom of the post-black era has scared him to death. So he picks up the gauntlet he threw down at the beginning of the show and he runs,” ditching a $50 million contract for the anonymity of Africa.
For all its occasional contradictions (why the put-down of the comedian Byron Allen for his Middle American cultural fluency?) and omissions (there is no consideration of the ways immigrant blacks and mixed-race people are contributing to post-black hetero¬geneity), this is one of the most acutely observed accounts of what it is like to be young, black and middle-class in contemporary America. Touré inventively draws on a range of evidence — auto¬biography, music, art, interviews, comedy and popular social analysis — for a performance carried through with unsparing honesty, in a distinctive voice that is often humorous, occasionally wary and defensive, but always intensely engaging.
Michael Ray Charles:
PLEASE READ THIS ARTICLE PRIOR TO WEDNESDAY, MARCH 7 AND COME TO CLASS THAT DAY PREPARED TO DISCUSS WITH GUEST SPEAKER CHRISTOPHER HUTCHINSON.:
Our Front Porch: Would Atlanta Benefit from a Postcolonial Dialogue?
Written By Christopher Hutchinson on January 1, 2012 in Our Front Porch
What is Kehinde Wiley really saying? Art credit: Kehinde Wiley (American, born 1977), Thiogo Oliveira do Rosario Rozendo, 2009, from the series, The World Stage: Brazil, oil on canvas, collection of the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, 2010.8. Image courtesy the High Museum of Art.
The idea for BURNAWAY originated from a front-porch conversation about the need for more dialogue about local art. Please welcome Christopher Hutchinson, today’s guest writer of Our Front Porch.
I visited the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center during the National Black Arts Festival last year, and when I surveyed Melvin Edwards’s exhibit Inside & Out, I was stunned. Really!? Is this supposed to be the most contemporary African American artist working in the Atlanta art scene? While I enjoyed the exhibit, I was disappointed that the most contemporary discussion you could have about Edwards’s work would be based on a concept that is over 60 years old—formal analysis circa 1950.
But, depending on your perspective, Edwards’s exhibit may indeed be viewed as radically advanced in comparison to the antiquated African American art often found at Hammonds House Museum. The art typically presented at Hammonds House continues to romanticize concepts crystallized in the Harlem Renaissance, which happened over 80 years ago. Nostalgia is being perpetuated, and a living, evolving culture is marginalized, bottled up, and packaged for sale. We’ve grown up on Good Times, but why are there still African American artists whose highest aspiration is becoming “The Black Picasso of the Ghetto”—stuck attempting to figure out synthetic cubism. Aaron Douglas figured it out a long time ago.
Discussing a work strictly in formal academic terms—line, color, form, composition, value—carries with it a conscious universal language that ends up being the editing of culture. The postcolonial dialogue concerning African American art is outdated and diluted. This problem is global and is also one of the major contributing factors for the archaic state of the Atlanta art scene. When will African American art enter into an avant-garde dialogue in step with current times, instead of always working in retrospect?
So much of contemporary art today is connected to contemporary philosophy—philosophies that are often French and theories of art that are constantly evolving, but deriving most of their power from Marcel Duchamp. In order to have a truly contemporary African American art dialogue, we have to be just as fluent in modern and contemporary black/African American philosophy, such as the writings of James Baldwin, Frantz Fanon, Fred Moten, and Stuart Hall.
Are Atlanta’s institutions of learning equipped with the resources for teaching students how to deconstruct African American art through the lens of these philosophies? Through my own experience as a Jamaican/American artist and professor of art at Atlanta Metropolitan College, and after receiving my MFA from Savannah College of Art and Design, these problems and questions are present in my own practice as well as teaching. Omission and inclusion into the history depends on whether we have an adequate vocabulary for critically analyzing African American art.
Postcolonialism envisions a mental space where people affected by colonialism may return to an original context of their own history, in one’s own language. Put plainly, postcolonialism takes the aspects that are important to a culture, from that culture’s perspective, and uses them to build that culture up.
The dialogue has made a little progress in America. Thelma Golden and the Studio Museum of Harlem, for example, has engaged in the dialogue by introducing some the most famous black/African American artists of late, one of the most notable being Kehinde Wiley. Wiley uses a Western visual narrative to portray the spectacle of hip-hop, the spectacle of blackness, in a romantic light.
Using hip-hop, slavery, and art history to point out the omission of Africans and African Americans from history is not actually postcolonialism. It just points out a redundancy: colonialism exists. Can we truly say that Kehinde Wiley is using his own language, or is he using the exotic nature of hip-hop and specific links to art history as an “in” to the contemporary art scene? Using the language of academia has been a decisive choice for African American artists. The African American artist’s conflict is “how do I edit my work just enough for it to be accepted into whatever institution?”
The nostalgic packaging of African American culture is not just restricted to exhibits at the Hammonds House Museum. I found the same ideals fused into Radcliffe Bailey’s exhibit at the High Museum. To its credit, it was a truly successful exhibition that received a great deal of acclaim and press. And overall it was beneficial to the Atlanta art scene. Nonetheless, with the exception of a few pieces such as Windward Coast and Cerebral Caverns, the exhibit was once again nostalgia at its finest. Baseball fields, guitars, music, and references to Satchel Paige were all packaged into large-scale memorabilia, again marginalizing the African American experience.
Charlene Teters is one artist that has embraced postcolonialism. She reclaims her Native American culture from a colonial aesthetic and returns to the ritual practices of her native tribe. She does not attempt to fit into the mold of a Western aesthetic or narrative. Teters could care less about the formal elements. She does not use a Western narrative to engage the viewer. Her intent is to destroy the exotic nostalgia present in Native American culture. As a result of her work, many “Indian” mascots and imitations of Native American culture have been eradicated.
My questions for BURNAWAY’s Front Porch:
What can be done to move past nostalgic blackness?
Does Atlanta have the power and resources to be at the helm of the postcolonial dialogue?
What cultural lexicon or lexicons are present now in Atlanta? How can art relate and incorporate these languages?