Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? What It Means to be Black Now

  • Touré
  • Free Press
  • 272 pp.

A major figure of “Post-Blackness” stirs debate on black identity and racial politics in the 21st century.

Reviewed by Abdul Ali

Touré dedicates Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness: What It Means to Be Black Now “to everyone who was ever made to feel ‘not Black enough.’ Whatever that means.”

Undoubtedly this “dedication” will raise a few eyebrows, inviting scrutiny away from the journalistic merits of the work and into the author’s own unresolved issues about inhabiting a sepia-colored (read: black) body. It’s like what Toni Morrison once said about Ralph Ellison: “He got to speak for us but he didn’t like to be identified with us.” (More on this later.)

Post-Black was coined by Thelma Golden of the Studio Museum of Harlem, who a decade ago curated an exhibit of contemporary African-American visual artists under the heading “Freestyle.” This show was not Afro-centric or remotely associated with African-American tropes, as was the case with previous generations of black visual artists. In that moment, “Post-Black” was born — suggesting a shift in the black aesthetic, and perhaps in our national consciousness.

Following its popularity in the art world, perplexing audiences left and right, “Post-Black” belatedly entered the American lexicon. Soon after, it permeated the world of politics and journalism. If you recall, during his presidential campaign, then-Senator Barack Obama was tagged a “Post-Black” politician, inspiring several articles about whether his popularity signaled a new chapter in black politics.

Fast-forward to the spring of 2009, when Touré informally became a referee on all matters “Post-Black” in a New York Times Book Review of Colson Whitehead’s novel Sag Harbor.

It’s fair to say that his review was a precursor for this book, which, might I add, doesn’t really define the term Post-Blackness. (Nor does it argue in favor or against it.) The work simply asks: Are we there yet? And for those who aren’t quite sold, it makes some compelling arguments about why we might take the term more seriously, pointing to the cultural phenomena of black-culture workers like Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama and Dave Chappelle — who, according to Michael Eric Dyson (who wrote the introduction), “are rooted in but not restricted by [their] blackness.”

Though anecdotes from “105 prominent black people” complement the book, allowing the reader to see that class isn’t a cure-all for racism by a long shot, the most telling aspect of the book comes from what’s missing.

The responses from doctors, Ivy League college professors and famous entertainers — though candid and enlightening — present a rose-colored view of the black experience that ultimately compromises the work as a whole. The sheer lack of “ordinary” black folks in this book is appalling — no social workers, stay-at-home moms and dads, school teachers, postal workers, welfare recipients, small-business owners, immigrants or struggling artists were consulted in this de facto town hall meeting on “Blackness.”

It appears that only A-listers made the cut: Ivy League college professors, rappers, psychiatrists, art directors and journalists, among others, who skew the picture of who makes up Black America. In case no one else says it, I will: There would be no black upper class were it not for the generations that came before, those who worked menial jobs and without fanfare pulled themselves — and their children — out of the de jure servant class.

The structure of the narrative is schizophrenic, ham-handedly shifting from anecdote to historical analysis to op-ed to personal essay. I found this brand of literary ADD gratuitous, leaving much to be desired, for example, a more cohesive text. Trite as the author’s personal story was, I often wanted to hear more about how Touré developed his consciousness as a black man living in America and as a card-carrying member of the post-Civil Rights generation. He writes, “I never lived a typical black experience. My father did — he grew up in the projects in Brooklyn rooting for Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers, and in the slums of Harlem.”

This view of his father’s upbringing is arresting. What is a “typical” black experience? The implied condescension says a lot more about the author and the relative disconnect between the two generations than anything about the father.

The lack of perspective from “ordinary” black folks in this work raises the question of whether the author is pandering to the white gaze by showing an über-sophisticated list of interview subjects, and not black people in our diversity.

Shelby Steele, the controversial journalist and one of the “prominent black people” interviewed for this book, posits, “one of the things it means to be black today is that we don’t really know what the hell it means.” Steele’s quote could easily have been the focus of this book.

The cultural dilemma that Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? attempts to resolve, but ultimately misses, is summed up in 20 words by Shelby Steele. Steele manages to unify all of what Touré attempts in almost 300 pages of tackling that elephant of a topic — black identity.

A great place to begin, possibly, would have been in the final chapter, “Quintessential Americans,” in which Touré recounts an epiphanal experience in Senegal. Upon spotting Touré, two young Senegalese boys point at him screeching “Toubab” (meaning “foreigner” or “white man”). Touré responds “No, I’m Black like you.” Raucous laughter ensues.

Without a doubt, Black Americans are still bedeviled with that age-old quandary that W.E.B. DuBois asked over a century ago: Will we ever be able to reconcile our “warring selves,” the parts of us that are quintessentially American but also African? The racial forecast looks dubious.

Alas, we’re not post-black: just as we’re not post-American.

Abdul Ali, a culture writer and poet, lives in Washington, D.C., where he’s a graduate student at American University. You can visit his blog, Words Matter, and follow him on Twitter.

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