Solidarity Blues: Race, Culture, and the American Left

By Richard Iton | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SIX

Memphis Diversities
Race, Class, Identity, and Popular Culture

Africanism has become . . . both a way of talking about and a way of policing mat-
ters of class, sexual license, and repression, formations and exercises of power,
and meditations on ethics and accountability. Through the simple expedient of
demonizing and reifying the range of color on a palette, African Americanism
makes it possible to say and not say, to inscribe and erase, to escape and engage,
to act out and act on, to historicize and render timeless. It provides a way of con-
templating chaos and civilization, desire and fear, and a mechanism for testing
the problems and blessings of freedom. —Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark

Now tell me your philosophy on exactly what an artist should be. —Lauryn Hill,
"Superstar"

In the previous chapters I have considered the effects of the acceptance of race as a meaningful axis of difference on the circumstances of American leftist organizations and public policy. Labor unions, leftist parties, and progressive policy objectives have all suffered in the United States as a result of the potent combination of race and class. The role played by racial understandings with regard to the exceptionalism phenomenon is even clearer in view of the sentiments and values that have been promoted in the arenas of popular culture.

Popular culture is one means by which people can grapple with the changes associated with modernization. The making and remaking of cultural forms with which different constituencies can identify and through which they can process and come to terms with the various aspects of their alienation are relevant to the left because these public goods allow for the formation of solidaristic conceptions of community, the kinds of understandings that are crucial to successful leftist enterprises and campaigns. In the first part of this chapter I will discuss some of the problems encountered by leftists in their dealings with notions

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