Post Black: How A New Generation is Redefining African American Identity
Is there really such a thing as post-blackness in America?
That’s the term in vogue these days, especially since a black man was elected President in 2008. It refers to a mode of blackness that’s moved on from the confrontational ‘60s and the aggrieved ‘80s, allegedly, to a stance that feels less urgently the need to prove its worth to the world, or be known for chanting down injustice from the mountaintop (or nearest bank of media microphones). It’s a mode that hasn’t forgotten that it’s actually black (as if), but doesn’t feel the need to make all that insistent a point of it anymore. It’s a way of being black that acknowledges society isn’t where it should be, but doesn’t use that as an excuse or a barrier (or a club to beat up said society). It’s the notion that, in all these 400 years since African American black folk have been part of the Western Hemisphere, we have never been more comfortable, if you will, in our own skin.
It also refers to the notion that there has never been a more panoramic range of blackness on display in American life. Unhinged from the sense that there is one “black leader” who represents/stands in for The Race, it’s as if a veil was lifted and folks can see the butchers, bakers and candlestick makers among us, thus giddily discovering for the first time that we hold such occupations. The notion that something different is going on within black life and culture isn’t entirely new: it has, to a certain extent, fueled some of the exploring, probing musing and pontificating I’ve done in this space for the past six years.
Let’s crank up the wayback machine for a relatively short jaunt, back to the spring of 2004. Barack Obama was a little-known Illinois state senator not given much of a chance in the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate. No one in Hollywood had the slightest idea who Tyler Perry was Janet Jackson, with a helping hand from Justin Timberlake, had just put the phrase “wardrobe malfunction” into the lexicon. Lebron James hadn’t yet become a global brand. Coretta Scott King, August Wilson and Michael Jackson still roamed the earth (not to mention, among others, Ed Bradley, James Brown, Isabel Sanford, Reggie White, Octavia Butler, Fayard Nicholas, Johnnie Cochran, Ray Charles, Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones and Ol’ Dirty Bastard).
I sensed back then that we were at a pivotal moment, a sea change in both the presence and perception of black life and black people in pop culture. I chose to chronicle this changing scene by bouncing it off against previous iterations and generations of black pop culture. Thus, a scene in a George Clooney movie led to an episode in the life of a pioneering black reporter. A passing news headline from a 40-year-old case dovetailed with new revelations about the Black Panthers. A commercial for televised football led to a tribute to black pop musicians who strayed far – and I mean far – from the black pop mainstream.
Yet for all that ground covered, a notion I cited in my very first installment of this column still holds true. It’s the passage I quoted from Colored People (Vintage, 1995), Henry Louis Gates’ memoir of his youth in West Virginia, in which the sighting of a black face on the television sent ripples throughout the neighborhood:
“Lord knows, we weren’t going to learn how to be colored by watching television. Seeing somebody colored was an event.
“‘Colored, colored, on Channel Two,’ you’d hear someone shout. Somebody else would run to the phone, while yet another hit the front porch, telling all the neighbors where to see it…”
Historic moments, fallen barriers and major societal gains over these past few decades be damned: we remain fascinated with, and emotionally invested in, seeing our stars and demigods strut and fret their hours upon the stage. That strutting and fretting still reflects deeply rooted feelings about who we are and who we are becoming, even if those feelings aren’t quite the same ones our ancestors felt in similar circumstances. We still come running whenever one of us shows up on Channel 2, even if we’re watching Channel 2 on a smartphone instead of in a living room. Our world has changed so much, but not completely. We are post-black, and simultaneously we’re not.
That equation has played out in the headlines the last couple of months. Ytasha Womack handles the first half in her new book, conveniently titled Post Black: How a New Generation is Redefining African American Identity (Lawrence Hill Books). Womack, a card-carrying member of this young adult generation, chronicles through personal anecdotes and interviews with her cohorts trends and attitudes emerging in black life. She touches several hot-button issues, including sexuality, immigration and biracial heritage. Despite the book’s declarative sub-title, Womack doesn’t make sweeping generalizations—in fact, she goes in the opposite extreme, looking for the nooks and crannies where younger blacks are carving out their own identities apart from the cultural mores and assumptions that have long ruled the black roost.
It’s true that we are witnessing something like a changing of the guard, with a younger generation not necessarily beholden to thinking and doing as its elders did. This difference isn’t a culture-splitting generation gap (not to say that tensions don’t happen along the fault line, as Womack relates), but rather the consequence of years upon years of progress and change. Freed from the need to fight battles over the most elemental rights of existence and participation, and empowered by the opportunities gained from the victories in those battles, this generation of black folk feels freer to do its own thing, whatever that thing may be.
Its racial identification, and pride in it, is never in question. Rather, it’s just that in a world that has changed in ways the elders never imagined, more and more younger blacks are embracing the world’s full possibilities, even if that means departing from the long-prevailing assumptions about what ‘blackness’ is and does.
This attitude was on display in the first place I encountered the term ‘post-black’. That would be the 10 June 2007 New York Times article about modern black artists, headlined “A Reluctant Fraternity, Thinking Post-Black”. The piece quoted a museum curator using the term to refer to “the generation that came up in the wake of the 1990’s, when Glenn Ligon, Lorna Simpson and Kara Walker opened up different possibilities – from painting to text to photography – for discussing identity, race, politics, love.”
The artists interviewed in the article each denied the practice of thinking in racial lockstep, although they all supported each other’s work. They didn’t all sing off the same sheet music, or hew to a universally accepted notion of how blacks were supposed to make art. “We’re only a group,” Rodney McMillian said, “when you take a photograph of the group.”
Actually, this isn’t the first time younger blacks did things differently than those who came before them. Both bebop and hip-hop, for example, were virulently rejected by the generation in charge at the time of their emergence as anti-musical. I had my own clash-of-the-generations moment 30 years ago, in the face of elders from the Civil Rights Movement. Also, there have always been those blacks who pursued unconventional lifestyle and career paths; see Dax-Devlon Ross’ Beat of a Different Drum: The Untold Stories of African-Americans Forging Their Own Paths in Work and Life (Hyperion, 2006) for recent proof.
Although it’s often unclear in Post Black whether Womack is advancing a critical point or just chatting up various compatriots, nor does she quantify how big a change is actually going on (this book could have used some numerical and demographic back-up, although there probably aren’t a lot of rigorous surveys delving into some of the questions she explores), she’s clearly onto something here. There are black people doing things differently than they’ve ever been done before, and doing different things altogether, as well. All that change and difference broadens the panorama of black life, and actually brings to life the hope black parents have always instilled in their children, that they can be anything they want to be.
So if ‘black’ in the construction of post-black means “the way black folk have acted for the last 40 years or so”, black folks are clearly moving beyond that. To the extent that ‘black’ still means “a descendent of Africans, African slaves or Caribbean people of said descent currently living in the U.S. of A. and having to deal with the same-old same-old when it comes to racial attitudes,” then we ain’t post-nuthin’.
We begin this litany of nonsense with none other than Tiger Woods, often held up as an avatar of post-blackness (at least, before his marital issues hit the fan). Nothing he did, mind you, except that he posed for the photographer Annie Leibovitz back in 2006. She shot him behind the scenes: working on his body as any master athlete does, relaxing by the pool. The photos give us a sense of how much work he puts into maintaining his stamina and competitive edge. Where’s the harm in that?
There is no harm, unless the pictures finally surface thanks to Vanity Fair, while you’re all over the media after reports of your serial infidelity, and the picture they splash on the February cover is of you shirtless, in a skullcap, rocking the barbells, and looking quite serious about it. While one wag commented that it looked like a scene from a prison movie, for others it evoked one of the most virulent tropes about black men: the oversexed black (OK, Cablinasian) buck exuding uncut, sexual physicality.
Never mind the fact that the pictures and the news of Woods’ sexual exploits have absolutely no connection to each other. Context is everything these days, and a picture of an impressively buff Woods, linked to an essay pondering his new image as a voracious booty chaser, all but set him in stone less as just another fallen idol and more as a post-modern Mandingo.
(For its part, Vanity Fair followed up that choice with something from the opposite end of the we’ve-never-thought-about-the-racial-aspect-of-images spectrum, getting raked all over the multicultural coals for splashing nine young white actresses – —on the cover of its annual Hollywood issue.)
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