Who’s Afraid of Post Blackness: What It Means to Be Black Now, by Touré (Foreword by Michael Eric Dyson), Atria Books [non-fiction]
By Kenneth Powe
I can’t think of a more appropriate time in our culture to examine and reexamine the generational question of race and what it means to be black in America than now. Somehow, we exist in a country that elected its first black President by popular vote (twice, at that) while having to grapple with the social implications of the Treyvon Martin verdict—in essence forcing us to relive the same judicial processes and outrage that surrounded the Emmett Till case over a half century ago. Adding to the indignity of this travesty is the well worn mantra of the neo-conservative contingent of the populace and mass media that the Zimmerman case was “never about race.” Those words alone, like an insulting slap in the face to every black person not naïve enough to believe it, tell us that the problem of racial distinction and identity is as pronounced now as it ever was, in spite of all the progress that would suggest otherwise. We know better because the whole episode is merely a Déjà vu of Jim Crow sociology.
Touré, an author for the popular culture magazine, Rolling Stone, raises the issue of how race in the 21st century (particularly blackness) may be even more difficult to define and absorb than in any other time. It is easy to understand this point of view. The history of people with African ancestry in America has been characterized by a common institution of oppression, vestiges of which linger today. Many times, it has been necessary to resist this oppression by doing whatever possible to bring about social change toward equality and freedom. Blackness in this context was not merely a visible characteristic but a mindset as well that if you are not fighting against racial inequality, you are not black. Blackness equals unity with the black. Fast forward to now. Barack Obama broke the ultimate glass ceiling in 2008. The wealthiest woman happens to be black. Black CEOs, high-ranking public officials, and multi-million dollar earning black entrepreneurs are commonplace now. At the same time, the gap between the wealthiest blacks and poorest blacks are wider than ever in terms of economic power, health care, education, crime victimization, and imprisonment. It seems some blacks are doing better, but many more are doing much worse than in times before. In Who’s Afraid of Post Blackness, Touré raises the question, “to what degree does being black determine who we are and how far we go in life?” To someone like Obama, blackness is a non-factor. To someone who was convicted of a crime or can’t find suitable employment regardless of talent or skill, it means everything.
The term “post blackness” is used by Touré because previous notions and definitions of blackness do not fit today. He invokes the famous black scholar, Henry Louis Gates, by saying that trying to define blackness now is elusive, like trying to hold water in the palm of one hand. To illustrate this, we do not yet live in a time when certain black people can live without being accused of being “not black enough” by a contingent of other blacks who somehow deem themselves arbiters. Bill Cosby, Tiger Woods, and even Obama himself are examples of dubious recipients of this label given by other prominent blacks. However, those who accept this assessment do so without questioning the criteria upon which they base this judgment. What makes them “less black”? Is it their skin color? Is it their speech? Their views? Their wealth? How they were educated? Whom they consort with? What makes one lifestyle “less black” than another? What is dangerous about holding on to self-defeating notions that one has to speak a certain way, hold certain views, like certain things or live in certain places to be “really black” or “keep it real”? Touré explores this and many other issues that show how difficult it is to put blackness in a box now that there is no longer institutionalized slavery or Jim Crow in our society.
In writing his book, Touré draws upon his own experiences as well as those of prominent and everyday people, all of whom he interviewed personally. He makes interestingly comprehensive choices with his subjects. He doesn’t confine his sample to scholarly types or hip-hop icons only. He includes black painters, politicians, underground musicians, famous comedians, and other surprising voices to comprise a mosaic of America’s “post black” culture.
Please don’t be put off by the term “post black.” It is misleading in that, on its face, it seems to suggest that we as a society have somehow moved beyond race. Nothing can be farther from the truth. Treyvon Martin showed us that. “Post blackness” is a term coined which suggests that the old ideas, notions and tropes associated with a fallacious monolithic black experience no longer fit adequately. It embraces blackness in all its current forms without sinking to absurdly arbitrary value judgments about whether one type of person or idea is more “black” than another. There are no answers to be found in Touré’s book, only rhetorical questions. However, the value in reading Who’s Afraid of Post Blackness is an awareness of social progress with respect to race or the lack of progress thereof. This helps us define how social progress is being measured on an individual and societal level. Is our measure of progress based on the individual achievements of a select few: a black President, an upgraded middle class, Ivy League attendance? If so, maybe we’re living in a golden age of black America in the 21st century. Perhaps we measure progress by how successfully we deal with social issues like poverty, education, disappearing families, crime, imprisonment and health care. If so, we seem to be going backwards rather than forwards in terms of social progress. The seemingly paradoxical implications of being black and American have been recurring themes since the writings of W.E.B. DuBois and before. The complex issues of race, social progress and justice are still too important to be ignored, in spite of mass media sentiments to the contrary.
Kenneth Powe is a former English Professor. He can be reached at [email protected]