I’m enjoying a much-needed two-week vacation with the family. Before someone asks: When you live in paradise you vacation in paradise! And, you read books on vacation just like everyone else does on vacation.
In fact, this might be the best reading vacation I’ve ever enjoyed. And today I want to review what I think might be one of the most important book-length treatments of “Blackness” in the last 30 years. This book, if read, could be to contemporary discussions of Black identity what DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folks has been since 1903. What book has that kind of potential? I think Touré’s Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness: What It Means to Be Black Now (Free Press, 2011, 216 pp.).
Now, this guy didn’t like the book as much as I did. But I think Touré provides us a fresh, energetic, insightful, and optimistic examination of “blackness” in contemporary America. He proves himself an expansive cultural critic, reflecting on everything from Black art to social psychology to African-American politics. If you’re looking for a recent treatment of Black identity that expands horizons and approaches the topic from fresh angles, Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? is probably your best bet.
A Chapter-by-Chapter Summary
Michael Eric Dyson provides the foreword for the book. It’s probably the only thing I’ve read from Dyson that I think I completely agree with. Dyson manages to provide one of the key touchstones for the work–the idea that post-blackness is to be “rooted in, but not restricted by, Blackness.” Dyson offers that assessment of President Obama and Touré extends it to African Americans in general. Dyson explains that post-Black as a term “clearly doesn’t signify the end of Blackness; it points, instead, to the end of a narrow, single notion of Blackness. It doesn’t mean we’re over Blackness; it means we’re over our narrow understanding of what Blackness means” (p. xv).
The body of the book reflects Touré’s vision of what it means to be Black, but not Touré’s alone. To write the book, Touré interviewed 105 prominent African American politicians, visual artists, recording artists, writers, and academics. He weaves his personal story, that of his interviewees, and contemporary cultural reflections into a readable, intelligent, and warm proposal.
He sets out “to attack and destroy the idea that there is a correct or legitimate way of doing Blackness” (p. 11). He maintains that, “The cult of the individual is something that is going to be a rescuing point for Black people” (p. 8). In his view, there are as many ways of being Black as there are Black people. About forty million.
Establishing the importance of individualism to a new conception of Blackness, Touré moves to skewer the widely held notion of “authentic Blackness.” He tells us that “keep it real” is a prison constructed by the authenticity police, writing violations to those who don’t conform. Touré illustrates and buttresses his point with a review of contemporary post-Black visual artists, among whom the term “post-Black” originated. A break from “warlike struggle for de jure and de facto rights” and “a dogmatic transference of trauma” opens up viable alternative expressions of Blackness that earlier generations could not afford or conceive without the freedoms we enjoy today. Touré points out that many of today’s Black leaders grew up when “all aspects of Blackness were truly pop culture” instead of the segregated, access-denying, Blackness-restricting contexts of their parents and grandparents. This, too, opens up greater access and freedom. But to enjoy that freedom, Touré tells us, one must escape not only the “white gaze” but also the “black gaze” that enforces group unity through social control.
Chapter 3 provides a creative look at the potential psychological costs and risks of embracing a post-Black understanding of one’s self. We’re told that “Being free from the need–the burden–to advance the race is in itself an advance for the race” (p. 58). But that advance comes with a price tag. To illustrate, Touré places comedian Dave Chappelle in the spotlight. Touré reviews the various ways Chappelle’s show turned racial identity and assumptions inside out without feeling constricted to typical racial memes, tropes, and messages. Post-blackness offers a kind of ambidexterity to those who embrace it. But, sometimes there’s the “Anxiety of Public Success–am I enriching myself at a detriment to the community?” Dave Chapelle walked away from a $50 million dollar contract, in Touré’s opinion, because that anxiety became unbearable. He writes:
Chappelle’s comic mouth has written checks that his body is afraid to cash. And the abundance of whites at the party that is his edgy cultural production makes him wonder if he’s gone from brilliant cultural commentator to a culture-damaging sellout. Telling abrasive jokes about your family when it’s just family in the room can feel cathartic but telling them to a massive audience of outsiders is treason. 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. (p. 74)
If post-Blackness offers freedom, it also provokes fear, a deep fear of isolation from the family. Touré suggests via Chappelle that that cost would be too high for many.
What follows in chapter 4, “Shut Up, Touré! You Ain’t Black!” is a chronicle of the author’s own struggle with Blackness from a middle-class, white private school childhood, to being accosted by a football player following a party in college, to encounters with racial assumptions as an aspiring journalist. In this chapter we realize that the author, like everyone, has had a sometimes painful and poignant journey into Blackness. The defining moment came when that football player denounced him with “Shut up, Touré! You ain’t Black!” In the after math, the aspiring journalist learns that:
To say I’m not Black is to accuse me of apostasy as if Blackness were a religion that could be escaped. But we cannot abandon Blackness even if we commit treason against it. It’s permanent. Even an Uncle Tom must suffer beneath the boot of white supremacy. (p. 97)
With that, we learn that though Blackness may be individual it’s also inescapable. It’s not a sweaty T-shirt that can be removed, but the epidermal layer affixed to the soul. What needs to be developed is an ability to “completely disassociate someone else’s vision of me from my vision of me” (p. 82). Along the way, we’re introduced to “stereotype threat” and “microaggressions” which impinge upon that vision of the self.
Chapters 5 and 6 take a look at racism. Chapter 5, “The Most Racist Thing That Ever Happened…” includes moving anecdotes from interviewees about their encounter with racist actions and statements. Touré writes: “We are people with unspeakable horrors in our collective memory, who feel searing vicarious pain when those horrors are referenced either in media or in incidents that remind us of the violence America so often inflicts on our bodies” (p. 141). But those memories of searing pain are not merely vicarious. They’re lived and sometimes the most racist things come at the hands (or, more often, mouths) of other African Americans. That’s the point of chapter 6, “The Blacker the Berry the Sweeter the Juice, But Nobody Wants Diabetes.” Reviewing “Acting White Syndrome”, light skin privilege, use of the N-word, we’re prompted to consider whether, “We are witlessly operating the machinery perpetuating our own oppression” (p. 166).
Chapter 7 considers “How to Build More Baracks,” African Americans with the ability to move effortlessly between Black and White worlds, being “rooted in, but not restricted by, Blackness.” Chapter 7 offers a short look at African Americans in politics and the subtle, precarious balancing act required to represent all citizens without distancing themselves from African Americans or wielding Blackness as a weapon against Whites.
Chapter 8 records Touré at his most optimistic and encouraging. He reminds us “We Are Quintessential Americans,” and perhaps the best way to summarize the chapter would be to give you a few representative quotes. ”We know the past is not done with us” (p. 192). ”How can you feel at spiritual peace in a nation that brags to the world that it accepts the world’s poor, huddled masses but doesn’t accept you?” (p. 193) ”We have changed America in the past with less political, economic, and institutional power than we have today and we can change America even further now” (p. 198). ”Why stay here just growling at America night and day like the world’s angriest dog, when the American life lottery is available to you and the chance to acquire power may be within reach?” (p. 199). ”And for those who opt to hate America and refuse to play the game and reject it before it rejects you, there are no rewards. You’ll get the coal-filled stocking you anticipated and never knew if it was self-fulfilling prophecy” (p. 200). ”If Obama succeeded at a massive task that almost everyone thought was impossible, then what smaller mountains can we climb that are currently deemed insurmountable?” (p. 200). ”I think for too long we have prized the revolutionary sexiness of outside agitation over the workmanlike possibilities of insider capability” (p. 201).
Of course, no book apart from the Bible can lay claim to inerrancy. So, we’re not surprised that Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? has some weaknesses. For my part, I’ll mention three.
First, I wonder how Touré’s thesis might be changed or challenged if his interviewees were not all prominent, well-educated elites. I suspect that the person most able to consider post-Blackness a viable identity strategy would be persons with access and means. Touré’s approach has more in common with DuBois’s “talented tenth” than he mentions anywhere in the book. And that may be fine, but perhaps there’s a greater gulf between Black elites and Black masses than this book entertains. As even one of his interviewees put it, “If so-called ordinary Black people sense or define the coming of post-Blackness, cool, but until that second coming count me out” (p. 215). I couldn’t help but wonder how many in the barber shop would raise a cautious eyebrow to the proposition of post-Blackness as outlined by Touré. So, as far as this book goes, the main premise remains untested by the vast majority of Black people.
Second, what does it really mean to equate “blackness” with individualism? If there are 40 million ways of being “Black,” have we not reduced “blackness” itself to at least an elusive if not altogether meaningless construct? Touré writes:
We are in a post-Black era where the number of ways of being Black is infinite. Where the possibilities for an authentic Black identity are boundless. Where what it means to be Black has grown so staggeringly broad, so unpredictable, so diffuse that Blackness itself is undefinable. (p. 20)
Touré doesn’t think this definition makes “blackness” meaningless, of course. But I wish he had struggled more with the implications of rugged individualism for group identity. As a construct, “blackness” has always been about group identity. To simply substitute individualism with little attention to its affect on group identity felt incomplete to me, especially since most people writing in this area contend that group orientation might be an African retention core to Black identity and historically necessary for Black survival.
Third, the book needed some clearer and more consistently applied definitions of “Blackness” and “race.” Touré wished to “be clear: Post-Black does not mean ‘post-racial'” (p. 12). He rejects the idea that race does not exist or that “we’re somehow beyond race” or colorblind. He contends that post-race “is a bankrupt concept that reflects a naive understanding of race in America” (p. 12). But the author never tells us what he means by “race,” or what makes “post-race” naive. That’s all the more problematic since he sometimes waffles between arguing against essentialist constructions of “Blackness” and assuming things that come pretty close to an ontological Blackness. Like when he tells us that “style matters” as an “ethos that runs through every aspect of Blackness from music to dance to cooking to clothes to language” (p. 149). Or when he contends that the pride that arises from surviving the difficulty of being Black is an “aspect of Blackness… essential to what Blackness is” (p. 151). The work would be sharpened with some clearer definitions up front–as difficult as these definitions are to develop and maintain–and consistent application or use throughout. As it is, Touré seems to sometimes use Blackness and race as synonyms, which clouds the issue in my mind.
These critiques don’t undermine the value of the book, but they remind us that the book has a particular focus. It appears concerned with making a single intra-ethnic statement: Blackness means many things, and the day of some Black folks defining for other Black folks what constitutes “acceptable” or “authentic Blackness” is (or should be) over, for the sake of all Black folks. Bold statement. If we keep the book in that context and resist saddling the book with proving too much, I think we’ll get the best benefit from it.
Who Should Read This Book
I think every African American should read this book. Not only is it a critical topic, but it might just open up some conversations that many of us would find freeing and life-giving. It’s not a Christian reflection, so it’s missing the most vital vision and reality of all. But it is an honest, thoughtful, and hopeful contribution that challenges longstanding Black hegemony that needs to be overturned.
If you’re not an African American and you’ve read this far, “Thank you.” Though the book presents an intramural discussion, I tend to think non-Blacks would benefit greatly from reading the volume for several reasons.
1. Chances are you know Black people, but not as well as you think. Touré points out that we live in a time of unprecedented access to Black culture, allowing people across ethnic lines to move in and out of one another’s experiences. That’s a huge opportunity for those of us who want to put an end to ethnic strife, injustice, and oppression. If that’s you, this will be a helpful book for getting to know something more about the way your African American friends, coworkers, brethren in Christ sometimes think about ourselves and wrestle with ourselves and each other. Don’t be willfully ignorant. Put some time and energy into knowing something about this topic.
2. Perhaps you’re not an African American but you pastor African Americans. It seems to me that the one thing my fellow White pastors routinely underestimate is the tremendous social and psychological costs African Americans pay to be a part of non-Black congregations. If you read one chapter, perhaps chapter 3 and the Dave Chappelle story would help you most in counting these costs. Don’t be so enamored with the notion of “post-Blackness” and that “off the hook” feeling that may arise that you overlook the most fearful aspect of all of this for the African-American brother or sister. Recognize that walking in the freedom of Christ where ethnic identity is concerned can take a very heavy toll.
3. Recognize, too, that you need to walk that same walk and pay that same cost. No group should assume that every other group should make all the adjustments necessary for pursuing reconciliation and peace while you remain in some mythic “neutral” position. We all have a contribution to make, some risks to take, and some costs to pay. To that end, I really enjoyed reading this reflection. Perhaps a good complement to Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? would be George Yancey’s Look, a White! Philosophical Essays on Whiteness. I’ve not read the book, but it appears to do for White identity similar things that Touré attempts with Blackness. If you’re White and you’ve never read an exploration of “whiteness,” perhaps this would be a good place to start. One aspect of White privilege will be the privilege of doing nothing and risking nothing. That would be the worst use of privilege, in my opinion. Instead, read and discuss this book and move on to others that look promising.
4. Finally, read this book for a primer in contemporary African American art and scholarship. I found myself constantly starring and circling things to come back to–especially related to the visual arts. I was completely at home in the social psychology and political aspects of the book, but exposed when it came to artists post Ernie Barnes, Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden. Quite apart from the insight into identity, the book provides a real education in contemporary Black culture for anyone wanting to pursue some of the resources surveyed.
Read Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?. It’s a sophisticated, well-written, and hopeful treatise on the possibilities and potential pitfalls of a life that admits more range and freedom to be “Black” than any American generation has ever known. You’ll find stuff that makes you say, “Yes!” and stuff that challenges you to think hard. Reading it repays.