Disclaimers are dubious ways to begin book reviews, but I think I should make a few things clear at the outset. I am a rather prolific Twitterer. In fact I was invited to share my thoughts on this book through that social media platform.
I have developed a network of like-minded individuals with whom I share thoughts, argue about current events, and retweet on occasion. One such member of my virtual social club is Touré, the author of Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?
To call him a friend would be overstatement (as of this writing we have never met). But he is someone I have done all the above with on Twitter. Take that information how you will.
More than my acquaintance with Touré, I believe I was given this assignment because in many ways I am exactly the type of person most likely to relate to the book. The author takes on nothing less than exploring what it means to be a Black American in the Obama Age. Needless to say, this quest is pretty monumental. In some ways it may be a fool’s errand, a task on par with the Twelve Labors of Hercules. Defining or redefining Blackness is like doing battle with the many-headed Hydra, which sprouted two fresh heads after any one of them was hacked off.
For those who are unaware, social pressure has historically been exerted on Black folks who fail to conform to widely held ideas of what Black people do, what they don’t do, how they speak, who they marry, the kind of music they like, and even what they do on vacation. The pressure comes not from outside, but from within. I am no stranger to this. In my own family, a relative of mine was fond of dubbing Black men who were too individualistic for his taste as “weird brothers”. While he never applied that term to me to my face, I knew that because I had white friends, listened to rock, and generally let my freak flag fly, I fit the bill.
So Touré, who has made his living as a print music critic and as a television host and commentator, has taken aim at this tendency towards a kind of petty xenophobia within Black America. He declares loudly in his first chapter (entitled “Forty Million Ways To Be Black”) that we need to embrace all Blackness in all of its myriad permutations.
Why? He goes on to make the cogent argument that by clinging to outmoded and simplistic codes of conduct for Black folks we are in essence stunting our own growth as a people and as individuals. In the book’s conclusion, he makes the case that clinging to the hurts of the past could keep us from realizing our potential, especially after President Obama’s election, an event that blindsided many Blacks and forced them to re-evaluate the country they view with such deep ambivalence.
What is post-Blackness? The term made a splash when the Studio Museum in Harlem assembled a show of contemporary Black artists called Freestyle in 2001. This show sent shockwaves through the art world with the bold assertion that a new Black artist had emerged; one who deals with race and identity in ways that can range from transgressive to ironic. Or bolder still: these new Black artists reject the notion that they have any duty to grapple with race at all if their muse demands otherwise.
In the book, Touré boldly takes that term (intended for a very specific context) and tries to apply it to a wider swath of Black American life and expression. This is of course a move that will and has moved many to reject post-Black as a term, insisting that today’s Blackness is just a part of a continuum, not a break from it. Touré knows this, but the provocateur in him cannot resist throwing this grenade of a term into the dialogue.
Touré enlists an impressive roster of Black writers, academics, visual artists to contribute their own views on the complexity of contemporary Blackness. But in the end it is clear that this book is very personal for Touré. More than that, it’s therapeutic. The fourth of eight chapters is the centerpiece of the book. It is also Touré’s memoir of how his own racial identity was forged. It is built around an incident that shook the author to his core: in college he was publicly denounced for “not being Black” in the eyes of a classmate who felt that his life experience and choices had rendered him inauthentic.
The dedication of the book is to all of us who were at one time or another made to feel “not Black enough”, so without that event, this book does not exist. Though my biography differs from Touré’s in many respects, his story rang true for me. He and I are only four months apart in age, and it struck me that this book captures not so much what it means to be Black in general, but specifically what Blackness has meant to our generation (Gen-X).
No readers are likely to get this book as much as my fellow Gen-X-ers. However any boomers or millennials will certainly gain from the ideas explored in its pages. The big question for me, or the first of such questions, is will this book do more than preach to the choir? In other words, will this book change the minds of many who see the term “post-Blackness” and bristle at it?
I don’t think so. For one, Touré’s construction of post-Blackness couches it in terms that make it sound essentially as Enlightened Blackness. Or worse still, Educated Blackness. “Distance” and “irony” are mentioned several times when he describes post-Black art pieces. They come to be definitive terms in explaining post-Blackness generally. If post-Blackness is to thrive as a term, it will have to be delineated in a way that doesn’t make it sound elitist or classist. If it does read that way, it is important to note that for too long the streets, the ghetto, and/or the projects have been the barometer for gauging one’s Blackness, whether by direct experience or second-hand knowledge. The book does not seek to relocate that epicenter to the suburbs or university. However, its emphasis on those strata could create the impression that post-Blackness is for the privileged and Blackness is for the less privileged.
Doing away with the urge to create hierarchies of authenticity is a noble calling, but is it truly possible for a people still healing from the wounds of slavery and Jim Crow? In the end, that’s unclear despite the book’s exhortations. One of the most striking sentences for me comes at the beginning of Touré’s memoir chapter. It begins with him declaring:
“I am a real and authentic Black man, even though once, in a room full of Black people, I was loudly and angrily told by a linebacker-sized brother: ‘Shut up Touré! You ain’t Black!’” (Page 75)
The first clause of this sentence undermines the whole point of Touré’s book. If we are to accept that there are forty million ways to be Black, then that means we have to jettison the very concepts of “real” or “authentic” which tends to support the hierarchical thinking the book is attacking.
He goes on to say that the slap in the face he endured was ultimately positive, since it forced him to look inward and ask the searching questions that resulted in the book. However, the fact that Touré begins the chapter with this refutation is telling.
By my lights, the memoir chapter comes too early in the book. I would’ve preferred to read his story towards the end. Putting his own narrative in the center of the book is a misstep that diffused the book’s impact; especially given that the chapter preceding his memoir (Touré analyzing Dave Chappelle as an embodiment of post-Blackness and his rise and fall) and the one following (in which a range of Black luminaries recall the most racist thing that’s ever happened to them) are the best chapters in the book.
The pain that Touré brings to the book permeates it. Perhaps pain has the wrong emphasis, what we’re really talking about is hurt. At some point, reading the book reminded me of Chester Himes, my favorite Black writer of the 20th century who is nevertheless perennially under-read (Himes’ approach to race is chockfull of irony, in a way he was proto-post-Black). Himes’ first volume of autobiography was called The Quality of Hurt. The title reflects the pain he experienced as a young man grappling with existential quandaries of family and race. The title for his second volume, covering middle age and beyond was called My Life of Absurdity. With time and expatriate living, Himes came to see the absurdity of it all and the hurt receded. I hope Touré revisits this subject in the future, when perhaps time and distance from that hurtful moment might affect his perspective.
Wherever you stand on post-Blackness or Touré, this book fills a void created by the swiftly changing times and will doubtlessly jumpstart many conversations. And if so, Touré is to be commended. This book will ultimately be judged not by the answers it provides but how much it promotes the discussion.
If we start to re-examine who we are, whether to finally retire hoary notions of monolithic Black essentialism, or even if to reject post-Blackness, then that’s progress. Ultimately no change can come from a hive mind, but instead by individuals looking at old issues with new eyes.
From the publisher: With a foreword by Michael Eric Dyson, Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness? What it Means to be Black Now (Free Press; September 13, 2011, $25.00) is a fascinating, entertaining, thought-provoking, sobering, angering, and at times laugh-out-loud examination of what it means to be Black in America today.
Guest reviewer Brandon Wilson tweets, teaches, and lives in Los Angeles.