Cultural Moves: African Americans and the Politics of Representation

Cultural Moves: African Americans and the Politics of Representation

Cultural Moves: African Americans and the Politics of Representation

Cultural Moves: African Americans and the Politics of Representation


Herman Gray takes a sweeping look at black popular culture over the past decade to explore culture's role in the push for black political power and social recognition. In a series of linked essays, he finds that black artists, scholars, musicians, and others have been instrumental in reconfiguring social and cultural life in the United States and he provocatively asks how black culture can now move beyond a preoccupation with inclusion and representation.

Gray considers how Wynton Marsalis and his creation of a jazz canon at Lincoln Center acted to establish cultural visibility and legitimacy for jazz. Other essays address such topics as the work of the controversial artist Kara Walker; the relentless struggles for representation on network television when those networks are no longer the primary site of black or any other identity; and how black musicians such as Steve Coleman and George Lewis are using new technology to shape and extend black musical traditions and cultural identities.


In Norman Lear’s hit television show from the 1970s, All in the Family, there is a memorable moment when Edith—wife of the show’s lead character, Archie Bunker—quips that blacks certainly have “come a long way, on television.” Edith, and Norman Lear, may have been prescient. Twenty years later, in another televisual moment, Regina, the black woman who works as the maid of a prominent Southern family, a leading character in the dramatic series I’ll Fly Away, talks intensely with one of the family’s sons about his apparent inability to see her. After the boy has apologized to Regina for being brash and insensitive, Regina responds with a polite but firm “reading” of the young white man: she tells the youngster, in effect, that he doesn’t know her, that he can’t know her—in other words, that she is invisible to him. (The scene implies that a source of Regina’s invisibility is the son’s constellation of privileges: middle-class, white, and male.)

In relationship to Edith’s claims about black televisual progress, I want to call attention to the fact that the exchange itself is emblematic of the distance traveled by black representation on television. In other words, in a dramatic liberal gesture, to acknowledge black invisibility on a television show whose topic is the struggle of blacks for visibility— ostensibly the Southern phase of the American civil rights movement— is to acknowledge the presence of blackness in the national imagination.

If one takes even a cursory tour through America’s commercial image culture—television, cable, cinema, advertising, the Internet, music, news . . .

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