Six Years in the Life of Post-Blackness (Or Not)

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.

Throw in an occasional reference trip to the motherland and a rewinding of black music history from modern-day retro acts to vaudeville, and there’s been a fair amount of ground covered.

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.)

Negro, Redux

Photo (partial) found on Swiss Valley

Negro, Redux

‘Negro’ may well be a long-standing term used to classify us colored folk, but we just think it reminds us of a sad period in American history we’d rather not remember.

Shortly after the Woods cover hit newsstands, the term ‘Negro’ made a comeback. First there was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid thinking he was doing President Obama a solid by complimenting him on the lack of “Negro dialect” in his vocal cadence. Reid rightly took his lumps for such an obtuse observation, but let’s unpack this for a second.

Book: Beat of a Different Drum: The Untold Stories of African Americans Forging Their Own Paths in Work and Life

Author: Dax-devlon Ross


Pub Date: 2006-01

Formate: Paperback

Length: 400 pages


Reid wasn’t the first to seem pleasantly surprised that Obama doesn’t speak like, say, Pookie from the West Side; Joe Biden praised him on the campaign trail for being “clean and articulate”, and he ended up as his Vice President. Let’s not forget Chris Matthews watching Obama’s State of the Union address in January and breathlessly gushing to a live TV audience that he was so enraptured by the speech that he forgot Obama was black (I’m still trying to figure out how that’s possible). Long after all the requisite mea culpas have been offered and accepted, the question remains: why did Reid choose the word ‘Negro’?

After all, as Erin Aubry Kaplan noted in the Los Angeles Times [”The term ‘Negro’? Color it obsolete”), the term is as old-school as your father’s Oldsmobile, and they don’t even make Oldsmobiles any more (8 February 2010)]. Kaplan reviewed the long and winding etymology of what we’ve called ourselves, and notes the place of “Negro” in that evolution, which parallels our own progress in this society, noting that our choices tend to reflect where we stand in American life and how we feel about ourselves at that particular moment. Yet right on top of Reid’s gaffe came the U.S. Census Bureau, including “Negro” on the line that asks people if they’re claiming a black ethnicity this decade.

Years ago, that designation rang with regality; not for nothing was the precursor to Ebony magazine called Negro Digest. However, black folks haven’t used the term to refer to themselves in nearly half a century, except to deride some other black folks without using that other n-word (unless you count guitarist/songwriter Stew’s former alt-whatever band The Negro Problem). What’s happening here, and possibly in Reid’s mind as well, is that the keepers of official terminology didn’t, or don’t, bother to evolve along with the times.

“Negro” may well be a long-standing term used to classify us colored folk, but we just think it reminds us of a sad period in American history we’d rather not remember. Furthermore, I don’t buy for a second the Census Bureau’s explanation that there are still some elderly blacks who call themselves ‘Negro’; that may be true but I seriously doubt the use of the term is broad enough among those it would describe to justify putting it on an official government document in 2010 A.D.

What’s most revealing about the state of racial awareness in present-day America is the endless whiteness of the Tea Party movement. Now, I can emphasize with their frustration with the state of affairs in our economy and government, even if I don’t share much of their reasoning about how we got here, and I would defend their First Amendment freedoms to express that frustration and act upon it. However, a growing number of commentators on the left are placing the Tea Partiers as only a few steps shy of a Ku Klux Klan rally — and no one from either the movement or the Republican Party, from which many of the movement’s figureheads arose, has raised a voice to rebut them.

Keith Olbermann’s “Special Comment” on Countdown (15 February) ”Beware fear’s racist temptation”, got to the heart of the matter:

If you believe there is merit to your political argument, fine. But ask yourself when you next go to a Tea Party rally, or watch one on television, or listen to a politician or a commentator praise these things or merely treat them as if it was just a coincidence that they are virtually segregated.

Ask yourself: Where are the black faces? Who am I marching with? What are we afraid of? And if it really is only a president’s policy and not his skin. Ask yourself one final question: Why are you surrounded by the largest crowd you’ll ever again see in your life that consists of nothing but people who look exactly like you?

It would be nice if some Tea Party grown-up politely suggested that putting a Hitler mustache on a black man is no way to signal racial tolerance, even if you’re only trying to comment about his policies and not suggest that he advocates some sort of genocide. It would be nice if someone would press the people who claim they’re only trying to “take my America back” – people who are always white, at a time when America is becoming more diverse by the second – to honestly and openly define what they mean by “my America”, considering that they might be expressing a barely veiled hostility towards those who don’t look like them.

All that would be nice, but those themes and even worse stuff surfaced in 2008 during the John McCain campaign, especially once Sarah Palin was added to the ticket, and no one lifted a finger then to nip it in the bud. So it’s no surprise that a Tea Party convention would feature the likes of Tom Tancredo all but calling for the establishment of America as a whites-only enclave. How he’d achieve that given the fact that the aforementioned Census will reveal an America that’s almost more non-white than white remains open for debate. (See “Tom Tancredo: Obama Elected Because ‘We Do Not Have A Civics, Literacy Test’ To Vote” on The Huffington Post, 5 February 2010)

Thus, it would appear that all those who doubted that Obama’s election signaled the end of racial division and lack of understanding were correct. Sorry, Ms. Womack, America isn’t quite post-black yet. Or maybe it’s that most black people are becoming post-black, whatever that is, but most white people clearly aren’t. Actually, I’d take that one step further: at moments, black Americans themselves aren’t quite post-black, if recent evidence of age-old racial attitudes creeping into discussions of cultural work is any indication.

A change indeed has come, when we consider that a black man just produced and directed a film adaptation of a challenging novel by an adventurous black writer to critical acclaim – just two generations ago, Hollywood barely embraced black talent, let alone black check-signers and black themes. However, the extent of that change is apparently an issue still in play, when we consider how some black people can find themselves bothered and upset by what others do with the opportunities that change provides.

The black man in question is Lee Daniels, the film is Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (2009), and the beef in question is the backlash in some corners of the ‘hood that Precious shows black motherhood and black men in a negative light. New York Press film critic Armond White executed the most notorious riff on this theme in his 4 November review, (”Pride & Precious”):

Not since The Birth of a Nation has a mainstream movie demeaned the idea of black American life as much as Precious. Full of brazenly racist clichés (Precious steals and eats an entire bucket of fried chicken), it is a sociological horror show. Offering racist hysteria masquerading as social sensitivity, it’s been acclaimed on the international festival circuit that usually disdains movies about black Americans as somehow inartistic and unworthy.

…Birth of a Nation glorified the rise of the Ku Klux Klan as a panicky subculture’s solution to social change. Precious hyperbolizes the class misery of our nation’s left-behinds—not the post- Rapture reprobates of Christianity’s last-days theories, but the Obama-era unreachables—including Precious’ Benetton-esque assortment of remedial school classmates. One explanation is that Precious permits a cultural version of that 1960s political controversy “benign neglect”—its agreed-upon selection of the most pathetic racial images and social catastrophes helps to normalize the circumstances of poverty and abandon that will never change or be resolved. You can think: Precious is just how those people are (although Cops and the Jerry Springer and Maury Povich shows offer enough evidence that white folks live low, too).

Never mind the fact that most sane people would no more mistake Precious — or any single cinematic work of fiction — as an authoritative documentary on black people than they wouldThe Sopranos as the ultimate statement on Italian-Americans in northern New Jersey. To hear White and others rail against Precious, seeing something just short of venom-dripping, condescending scorn in white audiences responding favorably to the story of a black girl overcoming unspeakable suffering, is to believe either that old racial sensitivities die hard, or that the birthers don’t have a monopoly on overheated conspiracy theories.

Yes, when it comes to black folk and culture, breathless pronouncements of a new day can often be premature. Three years after that New York Times article, the Washington Post looked at the same crowd of black artists (”Race issue a two-edged sword for black contemporary artists”,” 24 January 2010) and wondered if this generation’s work will ever be accepted by black audiences more used to art as communal uplift than individual commentary — even as Ligon’s work now hangs in the Obama White House ( “Glenn Ligon gets Obama’s vote”, Los Angeles Times, 11 December 2009).

Maybe those aren’t the best examples of intra-blackness tension between the old and the new; after all, black folk have proven to be no more attuned to cutting-edge art than any other ethnicity (and yes, I’ve written about that in this space, too). The most recent entry in the old-habits-die-hard sweepstakes took place just a few weeks ago at the Sprite Step-Off, when a bunch of white girls took first prize – but for the purposes of our story, the real news broke after they won.

The finals event in Atlanta was the culmination of a nationwide competition among college sorority and fraternity troupes in stepping, a routine of synchronized chanting, movement, body percussion and showmanship done by groups of ten or so. It took hold among black colleges, and is one of the slices of black college life Spike Lee portrayed in School Daze (1987). Slowly over time, the step show phenomenon seeped into the broader pop world, with routines freely borrowing from music video choreography (and vice versa) and the cheerleading-with-attitude of the Bring it On franchise, beginning with the original 2000 movie (and vice versa).

With the release of the movie Stomp the Yard (2007), stepping (not to be confused with steppin’, the province of black couples’ social dance) officially became mainstream, and thus available for anyone to adopt and interpret. So perhaps it was inevitable that one day there’d be some white folk who could step well. After all, white musicians from Jack Teagarden to Amy Winehouse have earned varying degrees of love and acclaim for their talent in black musical genres (albeit not without varying degrees of skeptical questioning of their motivations by black audiences – just ask Elvis or Eminem).

It may simply be that black folk weren’t ready for that day to show up last month, but it did, when the Zeta Tau Alpha squad from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville took top honors and the $100,000-in-scholarships first place pot. Their win relegated a team from the black sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha at Indiana University to second place, and that’s when our fun began.

It started right after the Zetas finished busting their Matrix-inspired moves. Event emcee Ryan Cameron took to the stage, sensing the crowd’s reaction to seeing a bunch of white girls throw down on what black Greek culture has always assumed was its thing and its thing alone, its cocoon of performance and pride against a hostile outside world. “Stepping is for everybody,” he announced in what could have been a line from the burgeoning Stomp the Yard franchise (and may well be someday). “If you can step, you can step!”

Nice try, dude. The uproar was so great (and in online comments, so racially charged), that Sprite blinked and discovered a “scoring discrepancy” that called the final judging into question. So the good sistas from Indiana were also awarded first-prize honors! Everybody wins! Is this a great country or what?

Personally, I’ve done my own judging, and must admit that the Zetas put on a much better show. As for the propriety of cultural back-and-forth and who’s allowed to excel at what, that horse left the barn years ago, and this is merely the latest manifestation. If black people can make inroads into classical music as players and composers (with the help of groups like The Sphinx Organization), and if black people can win medals at the Winter Olympics, then surely we can make room for white folk taking something we started and running with it.

So if we’ve learned anything these last six years, it’s this: black folk will continue to show up on Channel Two – and white folk might show up on the chocolatized sista station — and we’ll all continue to tune in, excited for the happenstance and curious about where it might fit in the larger scheme of American racial things. Thus, I humbly thank you, all you black stars and demigods out there (and those of you working it on the other side of the racial fault line) for continuing to get your strut-and-fret-across-the-stage on. Job security’s hard to find these days.

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