[15 March 2012]
When Barack Obama was elected the first African American president of the United States, this historic event signaled for some the dawning of a post-racial era in American society. The centuries old legacy of slavery, segregation and institutional racism had been demonstrably overcome and a new day of colorblind hope and unity had risen in its stead.
Of course, this narrative ignores the fact that Obama isn’t actually a descendant of American slaves, but rather the son of a Kenyan immigrant father and a white mother from Kansas. And while this alone should indicate that the social construction of race is still very much alive, reducing the complexities of Obama’s multiracial identity into the reductive logic of a black/white binary, there are other more ominous indicators of the continuing prevalence of racial discrimination and inequity in American society.
At this moment, there are more African Americans in the ‘correctional system’ than were enslaved in the years leading up to the Civil War, and there are more African American men disenfranchised from the voting process today than were at the ratification of the 15th Amendment which guaranteed their right to vote. In Obama’s home town of Chicago, nearly 80 percent of the male African American population has been labeled “felons for life”, and is subject to legal discrimination in employment, housing, education and public assistance, a situation that legal scholar Michelle Alexander describes as “The New Jim Crow” (Michelle Alexander, TomDispatch.com, 8 March 2010).
These disturbing statistics are a direct result of the US government’s decades long “War on Drugs” that has been waged largely as a war on poor, inner city black men. And they are evidence of the danger of post-racial narratives of American society as they ignore the realities of deeply entrenched, institutional racism that define and limit the possibilities of opportunity for many in communities of color.
In From Jim Crow to Jay-Z: Race, Rap and the Performance of Masculinity, professor Miles White challenges the notion of a post-racial society by examining the realm of popular music as one of the most prevalent and potent sites for the construction of racial identity in contemporary American culture. Hip-hop music is based largely upon the visual and narrative representation of young, black inner city men, and it would be difficult to overstate the genre’s influence within American popular culture over the past few decades.
White’s study of hip-hop culture examines the complex intersections between race and masculinity in “the performance of the black male body, representations of black masculinity, the construction of emotional affect or feeling around these, and the uses and misuses of black male subjectivity that have helped to shape perceptions and attitudes regarding black males in the American racial imagination”. He approaches his subject from a primarily academic perspective, drawing on the work of many prominent thinkers within the realm of critical race and gender studies such as bell hooks, Judith Butler, Eric Lott and Tricia Rose.
White’s study of the cultural representation of black male identity begins with the black face performances of American minstrelsy, and continues through the early 20th century jazz movement, Elvis Presley’s appropriation of blackness in the early rock ‘n’ roll era and the historical origins of hip-hop in the black power movement of the ‘60s and ’70s. White describes the revolutionary aesthetic form of hip-hop with its beats that “painted new landscapes of sound and meaning using the dissonances and abrasions of urban modernity,” and its rhymes that “in many cases accomplished poetry dedicated to the power and possibility of language that rivals European poetic traditions”. He considers the rise of gangsta rap as it relates to the inner city crack epidemics of ‘80s and the dawn of Reagan’s “War on Drugs” and the role of MTV in the visual representation of hardcore styles of hip-hop. And he engages in a lengthy consideration of white rappers’ performance of black identity as it relates to themes of masculinity and authenticity, comparing and contrasting the figures of Vanilla Ice, Eminem and Brother Ali in these regards.
The power of White’s critique lies in the connections that he draws between cultural representations of blackness and masculinity and the social construction of race, gender and class according to the ordering logic of the socioeconomic hierarchy in the United States. He argues that “over the history of America culture, representation has been used to construct a language of discourse where the black male subject(ivity) and the black male body have become primary vehicles and sites of fear as well as fantasies of the racial Other”. And while hip-hop shapes white perceptions of young, black men as objects of fear and fantasy, it also limits and determines the possibilities of racial and masculine identity for those individuals themselves, reinforcing the cultural narratives of deviance, misogyny and excess that perpetuate the abject position of inner city African Americans within American society.
White acknowledges that there are also subversive and emancipatory possibilities within the aesthetic form of hip-hop as well, and it’s clear through his thoughtful analysis of lyrics, imagery and music that he is himself an active and impassioned consumer of the genre. The most powerful sections of the book are those in which he foregoes the dense and highly specialized language of the academy for more accessible readings that both critique and celebrate the possibilities of hip-hop. In this passage, he describes the artist Jay-Z as a complex figure who embodies both the perfection of the hip-hop aesthetic and the dramatic interplay between hip-hop narratives and lived street culture: “Jay-Z has crafted a vision that is coherent, almost philosophical, deeply personal, and universal in its scope. He rhymes about the narrative arc of his own life, the experiences that have made him who he is, the situations and daily drama of the hustler’s life that he has used as the raw materials of aesthetic performance. His rhythmic flow is unorthodox, athletic, and dexterous, often using multiple meters or mixing them all up, jumping over bar lines as if they were prison bars trying to pen him in.”
White’s careful analysis of race and masculinity within hip-hop culture works as a trenchant critique of any notion of a post-racial American society, pointing to the conditions of inequity and disenfranchisement that are experienced by many individuals as a direct condition of their racial identity. By interrogating the cultural logic through which blackness and masculinity are constructed in our society, he opens up possibilities for more empowering forms of representation and identification both within popular culture and in the lived experiences of race, class and gender. My one critique of his work is that this is ultimately an academic text, written in the often rarified language of cultural theory, and although it is certainly an important piece of scholarship and a key contribution to the realm of academic discourse, its impact would only be heightened if it were directed toward a more general readership.