Academic journal article African American Review

Post-Black, Old Black

Academic journal article African American Review

Post-Black, Old Black

Article excerpt

In recent years, students of American and African American thought, politics, and culture have sought to understand what we used to call race relations as currently unfolding in the aftermath. In the aftermath of what depends on whom you ask. For people specifically interested in politics, the breaking point is the end of the civil rights era, marked at least in part by the apparent successes of the mid-20th-century black freedom struggle. For people interested in broader cultural dynamics the breaking point is the decline of soul culture, reflected in popular music and film, again in part, by the rise of an urban-inflected, hyper-materialistic nihilism and the fall of a rural-inflected, gospel-tinged optimism (George Post-Soul 1). And for inhabitants of the art world, the breaking point is the consolidation of the gains of multiculturalism and the consequent lifting of the burdens of racial reductionism. We see this development manifested in the emergence of artists for whom black identity is something to be interrogated, scrutinized, and variously enacted, if enacted at all, and in the way that some of these artists, as curator Thelma Golden puts it, "moved to the forefront of ... contemporary art practice in ways that didn't have to be explained through a Black History Month label" (qtd. in Tate 50).

The sense of being in the wake of an important historical shift encourages the people I have in mind to borrow the "post" from postmodernism and use it to specify their simultaneous debt to and distance from their favored historical dynamic. So Tommie Shelby searches for forms of political solidarity that are appropriate to what he calls the post-civil rights condition. Nelson George and Mark Anthony Neal explore, among other things, the personalities and expressive practices that define what they refer to as post-soul culture. And Thelma Golden heralds the inventiveness and assertiveness of those she identifies as post-black artists (Tate 50).

However one understands the ideas of post-soul culture, post-civil rights politics, and post-black identity and aesthetics, there is considerable overlap between them. We might take these expressions as synonyms, as different names for the same complex reality. (1) It seems more productive, though, and a more efficient use of the linguistic resources that we happen to have available, to insist on the differences of emphasis that have produced these terms. Each then becomes a partial window onto some relatively distinct aspect of the far-reaching and multifaceted reorganization of black life that has occurred over the last couple of decades.

It may be especially productive to identify and clarify the specific contribution that a distinct notion of post-blackness can make. As it happens, the notion tends to figure in rhetorical gestures more than in fully formed arguments. It seems, in fact, to be a placeholder, an abbreviated, perhaps elliptical invocation of unexcavated theoretical resources. My sense is that if we seek out these resources and flesh out the idea, we will find that it offers more than a way of talking about black art. It may well capture something of the peculiar situation of race theory at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

The most obvious place to turn for resources is to postmodern theory, which has directly or indirectly cultivated in so many of us the impulse to speak of the post-this or the post-that--the impulse, I will eventually call it, to posterize. But theorists of post-blackness themselves tend to go no further in this direction than the casual understanding of postmodernism, or of postmodernity, that has made its way into public intellectual culture. (2) This casual postmodernism captures some of what one might mean in speaking of post-blackness, but it also obscures some meanings, and squanders a fascinating opportunity to put the posterizing impulse in the service of a comprehensive understanding of contemporary racial conditions. …

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