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Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? A Book Review

2011 October 14
Being born black in America is no easy thing to describe. I’ve been here nearly thirty years and I’m still not entirely sure what’s going on. If you’re interested in the subject, there is plenty of reading material. Fiction. Non-fiction. Poetry. Take your pick. Figuring out what it means to be black in America is one of America’s favorite pastimes. And there is not a single great black writer that I can think of who doesn’t take some time out of their personal struggles and ambitions to dedicate a few thousand words to the effort. My own small collection has names like James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Bell Hooks, and Amiri Baraka, to name a few. I’ve been pretty underwhelmed with contemporary writers’ takes on the subject and I’ve been waiting for someone with real gusto and talent to take up the challenge. And so, I was rather intrigued when the writer Touré announced he’d be publishing a book entitled Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? What It Means to Be Black Now. I’ve been pretty ambivalent about Touré over the years. His first collection of writing, Never Drank the Kool-Aid, struck me as the work of a very talented writer writing about very interesting things, but not really challenging himself. One cannot fault his musical ear—I find him to be as astute a contemporary musical critic as there is right now, at least where hip hop and pop are concerned. He’s got a very good grasp of the minute workings of popular culture but also a sensitivity to historical precedents and patterns. At the same time, more often than not he and I are on the opposite sides of most social arguments. Despite that, I still try to catch his FuseTV show when I can and I follow him on Twitter, occasionally speaking up with a contrarian @reply when I have the chance to be heard above the din. I appreciate his voice and his conscience despite disagreeing with him so often. And so, indeed, out of a sense of solidarity, I knew I’d be buying Who’s Afraid Of Post-Blackness? even though also I knew I was going to have serious problems with his thesis.And indeed I did buy it. And indeed, I do have serious problems.First of all, I had to wonder just what the hell “post-black” means. After two and some odd years of refuting notions of a “post-racial America,” here comes a black writer pushing the concept a post-black America? I mean, come on! But its not all intellectual gymnastics. Touré does have a pretty specific idea about what he means by post-black. Early in the book he writes, “I would like, though this book, to attack and destroy the idea that there is a correct or legitimate way of doing blackness. If there’s a right way then there must be a wrong way, and that kind of thinking cuts us off from exploring the full potential of black humanity.” So it seems clear that Touré views this book as an attempt to kick out the traditional mores of “blackness” and throw down the gauntlet of a new, more open definition of blackness. Sure. But why “post-black”, I wonder? Is it about moving beyond the idea of being black? Or the idea that being black is a clear and coherent state of being?

The first interesting clue to finding out the reasons for the term comes when Touré cites Michael Eric Dyson’s three primary dimensions of blackness:

Dyson defines three primary dimensions of Blackness. He calls them accidental, incidental, and intentional but I prefer to call them introverted, ambiverted, and extroverted. The introverted (or accidental) mindset is about perhaps a more private relationship with Blackness. Dyson says it’s “I’m American, I’m a human being, I happen to be Black. By accident of my birth I am Black. It just happened that way.” He gives Clarence Thomas and Condoleezza Rice as celebrity examples. Ambiverted (or incidental) Blackness refers to having a more fluid relationship with it: Blackness is an important part of them but does not necessarily dominate their persona. Dyson says it’s “people who more completely embrace Blackness—they aren’t trying to avoid it—but that ain’t the whole of their existence. I love it but it doesn’t exhaust me.” In this group he places Barack Obama, Colin Powell, and Will Smith. “Then there’s intentional [or extroverted] Blackness,” Dyson said. “I be Black, that’s what I do, that’s what my struggles are about.” This is Malcolm X, Dr. King, Jim Brown, Jay-Z.

These are rather useful—if somewhat simplistic—dimensions of blackness. They are very useful for categorizing certain ways in which blackness is perceived in America. Whether they really are applicable as dimensions of blackness that black people fit into in reality is another story. It is precisely this sort of reductive postulation that proves to be the book’s Achilles heel. Either, as Touré states earlier, black people come in all different shapes and sizes and cannot be boiled down into “this is black” and “this is not black,” or there is some rubric of general identification for  blackness in America. While Who’s Afraid . . . purports to be championing the first position, it spends most of its time casually switching sides in the debate. In fact, scant paragraphs after being quoted describing these three basic kinds of blackness, Dyson actually explains that black people move through these “dimensions” freely depending on the situations they find themselves in. Specifically, that black people “vacillate among the modes depending on what we need. When you deal with multiple audiences you have to pivot around different presentations of blackness.” So even at the outset, it’s not clear which way the book really wants to go with this race theory.

Still, despite its amorphous first principles, the search for a clear understanding of post-Blackness throughout the book is wonderfully interesting. One of the most interesting devices Touré uses is the wealth of information he got from interviewing numerous Black celebrities, artists, and academics to pinpoint how they view blackness now. If nothing else, there are mesmerizing ideas and stories being put forth by, to name a quick few, politician Harold Ford Jr, writer Malcolm Gladwell, comedian Paul Mooney, and satirist Aaron McGruder. His list of interviewees is actually a who’s who of accomplished black Americans—Not all of whom, I suspect, would consider themselves post-black. Nonetheless, their thoughts on what it means to be black are worth deep consideration.

The most interesting celebrity case in the book is that of comedian Dave Chappelle, who actually wasn’t interviewed for the book for some reason. Most of the cast and people behind the scenes of the now (in)famous Chapelle’s Show are interviewed, and Touré refers to Chappelle as a “post-black king.” Ok, well the theory behind this is that Chapelle’s comedy (and his show, by association) are a perfect example of the kind of comedic commentary that is appreciated in a post-black culture. Now, assuredly, Chappelle and his collaborators were not thinking, “let’s make a post-black sketch comedy show,” they were just trying to make a show that was as funny as possible. What the first episode of Chappelle’s Show does do is declare allegiance to groundbreaking racially conscious comedy. Would I call it post-black? Probably not, but Touré argues that the subject matter of sketches where, for example, Chappelle plays a black Klan member who is unknowingly self-hating is somehow a tie back into his mission statement from before. I don’t really see the logic in that. While I do see how sketches like that (and the famous Wayne Brady episode with its Training Day take-off) illustrate a flexible understanding of what it is to be black, I don’t think it’s really a declaration of some movement. It’s true the comedy moves rather fluidly through Dyson’s aforementioned dimensions of blackness, but I don’t think Chappelle and his writers try to tear down the history of what is perceived of as blackness and replace it with something new. I would argue that the show instead uses the accumulated centuries of blackness to explore what blackness already is. There are no Brechtian moments when the show tries to send a clear sociopolitical message. That would have made the comedy much less effective, in my opinion. What the show does reflect is an honest curiosity about race and identity. It’s groundbreaking because it doesn’t simply say “black people are like this, and white people are like that.” Instead almost every sketch seems to share a questioning spirit. Meaning, the sketches ask why black people feel this way. Why do white people feel this way? Why, in a nation of so much shared history, is there still such an enormous divide between “this” and “that?” And it asks these questions in hilarious ways.

I think it is analyses of the show that depend heavily on a serious socio-racial bent ignore what makes the show so fantastic after the fact. Its in the questions—and not the answers—that the show makes its best offerings. When Prince—whom we think of as a short and fairly effeminate guy—whoops Eddie and Charlie Murphy in a late night game of basketball and then feeds them all waffles, Chappelle isn’t trying to make us see how our preconceived notions of race and identity are wrong. Rather, he’s using what he knows is will surprise us and make us wonder: really?!

Is that what is meant by post-blackness? Because it seems more like delving into the present black identity and using the known discomforts and presumed norms and pressure of being black to find humor. I don’t disagree with Touré that the show is a brilliant piece of art, that the comedy goes beyond the belly-laughs, and that there is a deep sense of race consciousness present in nearly every sketch. But I don’t think Chappelle is the king of post-blackness that Touré makes him out to be. I think Chappelle is a brilliant guy with a great sense of humor and an immense talent for being entertainingly thought-provoking. But any added responsibility for a movement that, at the time, was still nascent—if it existed at all—is a dubious assertion at best. And I think it was wrong-headed to try and portray Chappelle’s eventual leave-taking as being some sort of tuck-and-run maneuver that was the result of hi confronting the “freedom of the post-black era” and being “scared to death.” Chappelle had already been out there on the frontlines of race. I don’t think he had anything to be scared of out there. I reckon only Chappelle truly knows why he left.

All that is preamble though, because the real question is “What is blackness?” I think Touré tries to set up a dichotomy where in the past there was a need (because of all the overt outside pressure) for black people to come together and make a homogenous culture, and that that need forced us to give up some of our individuality in order to stave off cultural extinction. As far as that, I might agree. But as far as trying to say that because the landscape of race and racism has changed the older definitions of blackness are somehow anachronistic—there I have to draw the line. The central chapters of the book revolve around issues of personal identity for Touré and his interviewees. One chapter is centered around an experience in college where, in the middle of a black social situation, another black man said very loudly to him, “Shut up, Touré! You ain’t black!” The chapter explores Touré’s youth as a young black man in sometimes very white environments—particularly school. Now, to that point, I can commiserate.

I spent much of my childhood in non-diverse educational environs. I was able to test into a specialized magnet program when I started school. The program was meant to somehow find and gather bright young minds and put them on accelerated courses of learning. Of course, what it meant, effectively, was that from kindergarten to eighth grade I was always surrounded by white people. Now, much like Touré, I am at pains not to vilify those kids I came up with. At that tender age, they were certainly not to blame for being better equipped and supported at home for things like reading, writing, and arithmetic. This was the late 80s in New York City. The black population was suffering huge losses to drugs, violence, and prison. Many of those people I was in class with have become lifelong friends and the education I received was superior to what I might have been granted otherwise, so I do not begrudge being given the chance to do better. Still, when I was given the choice of choosing to continue in mostly white environments or to attend a school with a much more diverse population, it was a no-brainer. And to this day, I think those first twelve years of the public school experience, of being separated from my cultural brothers and sisters because of something so trivial as test scores, have had an impact on all my days since then.

Like Touré, I lived through galling experiences where I had black people tell me I was “acting white” or “speaking white,” or that I liked or did things that black people didn’t do. Like  Touré, I found those experiences hurtful because, after all, how can I stop being like myself? I didn’t want to end up being what Michael Eric Dyson would call an “accidental” black person. At home, I was steeped in black culture. My parents insisted on augmenting my classwork with extra homework: reading about Crispus Attucks, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr, Sojourner Truth. Reading Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright. Indeed, I inherited my favorite writer from my mother: James Baldwin. So why, when I was finally reunited with my black peers, was I considered different and/or weird? And it is here that I think Touré and I part ways. It could be a generational thing (he’s about twelve years older than me) or it could just be a matter of perspective. The central chapters of the book, in which Touré and several of his interview subjects describe similar formative experiences, is meant to be a shot across the bow of people who still subscribe to the old notions of what it means to be black in America. They are meant to say, “Hey, we are black and we’re different and many of you tried to dis-include us for that. And now it’s a new day, we’re post-black. We don’t need those tired old requisites anymore.” While that may be a cathartic and liberating argument for a black person who experienced that kind of discomfort to make, I think it just serves to dilute the real issue at hand. For when I was confronted with claims that I wasn’t black enough or wasn’t “down,” I realized that perhaps it was because I had, indeed, been an aberration.

As I said, we’re talking about NYC in the late 80s and early 90s. We’re talking crack epidemic, New Jack City, and Reaganomics. We’re talking about the beginning of the systematic adulteration of black social mobility in America. Perhaps the beginning groundwork for the destruction of class mobility in America. And so here comes this black kid who got lucky and was talented and was in the right place at the right time and got into a specialized program and got all the opportunities a gifted non-black child would. A black child from a two-income household where the parents were former black activists in the 70s, who gave their kids African names and instilled in them a sense of the whole history of black people in America. And then, at the age of fourteen, I showed up for high school with all that as my backstory. I was weird. I was different. That didn’t mean that my new black friends were wrong about me—it meant, to me, that the system, in trying to help me, nearly prevented me from having a genuine black experience. And that is the crux of the entire discussion about blackness: the Black Experience. So I grew into my own. I learned (yet another) code for my code-switching repertoire. I learned about what the world really though black kids were supposed to be able to do. I learned about the pressure of having people be completely clear about their expectation of your failure. And it changed me significantly. That experience, those lessons, and those people (who also have become lifelong friends) have remained with me in all the days since then.

Now, I don’t mean to say that they were right when they said that I wasn’t black. That’d be ridiculous. But we were children then and I think what they meant was “You do not act like a black person. You LOOK like us, but act different and you make us uncomfortable.” And, most beautifully important: “We’re letting you know.” It was frank and hurtful dialogue. But it was also a moment of decision. I was given a choice between blaming them for my awkwardness and being open to the idea that my opportunities had given me certain privileges that most black children didn’t get. I chose the latter.

Touré goes on to describe how, as a fledgling writer in New York City, he faced a lot of (maybe) unconscious  racism from editors who thought he could only write about black culture—things like drugs and rap and so forth. How he had one editor basically tell him that he was good writer, but there was no way he could write about someone like, say, Eric Clapton. I find these stories fascinating — because they mirror my own current experiences.—But I still don’t think they are universal. I don’t think they really form the foundation of something that could universally be called post-blackness. I think the only way Touré’s stories are really universal is the way in which they speak to the pressures and obstacles that one faces when one has black skin, no matter what his or her background may be.

And at this point in the book Touré begins to cite studies about black people that will probably make your skin crawl. Studies about how black men who have youthful (baby) faces are considered less threatening and have a much higher chance of being CEOs of a company in America. About the concept of John Henryism, wherein black people who feel the psychological pressure of stereotypes for their failure subject themselves to deleterious redoubling of effort just to beat what seems unbeatable. Or, more insidiously, the inverse relationship between the GPAs of black students and their number of black friends. Of course, none of these are totally new things, but they do reinforce the systematic nature of race and racism in America. It’s not a simple matter of hate or perceptions of beauty or what-have-you, but something far more pervasive. It is a kind of all-suffusing law of motion. It is a kind of social gravity. And in arguing for that Touré once again undercuts his post-black argument. For when you look at the evidence you can’t deny that this is a shared dementia and that there must be a shared core blackness because of it.

In the end, my problem with Touré’s thesis is that I just think it’s too neat. It’s to clean and clear-cut. I think it’s a lot easier to simply say, “Oh, things were really messy and weird but we’ve dropped the old way and now have this new way that is much simpler: we’re all just who we say we are.” If that was doable, we’d have all done it long ago. But American history is a short but sticky quagmire of that have taken nearly a thousand years to get as messy in most other nations. There is no escaping being black in America, and so those of us who are must live it it. We can choose to live it thinking plurality is the law of the land or we can choose to subscribe to some sort of Dyson-like rubric of kinds of blackness, or we can continue to admit that it’s just about as complicated an issue as humanity has ever created. That the half-measures and little advances and the advent of persons like Barack Obama serve to make it that much more intricately complicated. We can admit that every theory is probably only part of the way the whole thing works. And we can dig for knowledge in the lessons learned in our brief history as a people in order to make informed decisions for the future.

Unlike most cultures, we don’t have thousands of years of history to draw on. In a very real way, the history of black people in America begins, out of nowhere, four or five hundred years ago. And that’s all we’ve really got. There is no single epiphany that can untangle all the knots in that brief history. As America advances, we advance. And people like me, who find themselves weirdly removed from their culture for a while, will have to strive to rejoin the narrative. As post-colonial actors on the American stage, it is the only way to retain sufficient perspective. Progress can’t be a quantum leap. It’s a slow, uncomfortable process. We know that the post-racial thing is utter nonsense. We know that “color-blindness” is not actually progressive, just willfully ignorant. In fact, it is another kind of racism, claiming ignorance. True progress is admitting that there is a norm and contending with it. If, as Touré did, a black person wants to go skydiving or play tennis, they will have to face the fact that most black people don’t have the kind of temporal and financial privileges one needs to do those things. They will have to deal with being black and different (being the Other’s Other, in a sense). And slowly, as more begin to become comfortable with the changes, the changes can become part of the core narrative. But the agents of change can’t try to drag all the rest of blackness with them off a plane. Not gonna happen: that dog won’t hunt.

The books ends with an exploration of how to make more post-black success stories moving forward. Specifically, more Baracks. I like Barack Obama. A lot. But he is not the end-all and be-all of blackness in America. More Baracks? Sure. But that’s no reason to give up on making more Baldwins or Coltranes or Hookses or Malcolm Xs or Melissa Harris-Perrys or, indeed, more Tourés. From my first year college seminars (returning to the lap of liberal whiteness from my black refresher) I recall that Aristotle said “The Good is excellent activity.” I took this to mean that it is not a single thing you do that makes you good, but rather all the things you do. The continuing, ongoing thing. And another Greek gave me “call no man happy ‘til he is dead.” So it must be with blackness. Touré’s book is an excellent installment in the ongoing struggle. I find I disagree with much of it, but I must be honest and say it ain’t over yet. When all is said and done he could be right. Whether what is happening now is post-blackness or just blackness on the move, I can’t say. I’m still working it out.

5 Responses leave one →
  1. Lori Payne permalink
    October 18, 2011

    I find Toure’s book as pointless as he is.

  2. Akie Bermiss permalink
    October 24, 2011

    i think that IS closer to the mark. the only important bits of the book, the only parts which resonant in the bright light of intellectual scrutiny, are the sections where he talks about himself and his experiences being black and so forth. so if you’re not in to Touré even a little, this book really does hold very little value to a person.

  3. October 24, 2011

    OK, always dangerous to post a comment midway through reading, but I want to get this down before I forget it, and I’ve gotta get back to work (in the sense of ‘that which I am paid to do’).

    The distinction you draw between ‘being useful for categorizing certain ways in which blackness is perceived in America’ and ‘representing dimensions of blackness that black people fit into in reality’ is just so fundamental, and like so much that is fundamental, it tends to get walked all over and ignored.

    That’s all for now.

    • Akie Bermiss permalink
      October 24, 2011

      indeed. this is the quintessence of the problem underlying many of the popular race theories of the day. a metaphorical simplicity or a neat-and-tidy matrix of “blackness” are very helpful when trying to talk about large sums of people. much the way psychology can use large groups of individuals to plot something like a norm and throw aside outliers and expound heartily with theory — so it is with these things.

      (better still i could make a connection to Isaac Asimov’s concept of “psychohistory” but, who has the time!)

      but the numbers only work for contemplating and/or predicting the behavior of large swaths of people over long periods of time. and it presents very little that can be intellectually useful to a black person living one lifetime in the present day. that idea of something being “post-black” is one such. in 100 years one may be able to examine all the preceeding and succeeding information and then explain the overall period in American race history as “post-black.” but to do so now, as if it were some movement or some revolution or some concrete congressional revelation is just too cute.

  4. November 5, 2011

    just finished the book. oddly, I find Toure’s anecdotes regarding race to be the most trite and the book really picks up steam for me in the latter chapters. Especially when we talk about “How to create more Obamas”. The idea that we have to sacrifice parts of our “blackness” in order to gain “power” is sad but true. This, I believe is what true “post-blackness” is. It’s that thing our parents fear most when we bring home a white love interest; that we will be giving up parts of our heritage to meet our partners half way. It’s that thing we give up that makes “whites comfortable” as Toure puts it. When we we’re kids, (80s/90s) we thought this was selling out. Maybe post-blackness is being able to finally let go of that notion.

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