I’m teaching a Black Politics course this summer, and I’m using Toure’s Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? What it Means to Be Black Now as the primary textbook. Initially, I planned to take the traditional route – lecturing from works by the usual suspects: Manning Marable, Michael Dawson, Cornel West. But I decided in the end that I wanted to discuss race in a contemporary way, and Toure’s work allows me that freedom.
My class starts like Toure’s book does, with questions about the nature of identity. What exactly is Blackness in 2012? 50 years ago, varying shades of brown skin were sufficient determinations. If you couldn’t pass a brown paper bag test, then you were Black enough to experience the struggle, and on some level, you probably knew it personally. It was that – the struggle, the trauma narrative – of the Black American experience that was the rallying cry of Black Americans.
In 2012, however, with a biracial President of the United States who has chosen to identify culturally as Black, what now is the rallying cry? What now is the reason to rally for the race? Toure’s book argues that Blackness is multifaceted. Struggle, trauma, oppression, and racism are no longer qualifying characteristics of living while Black in America. Scholar and Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates explains it this way: if there are 40 million Black Americans, then there are 40 million ways to be Black. Thus, poor, oppressed, and powerless is but one reality of Blackness. There are 40 million other ways to “do” it.
Last week, I asked my class to write a short paper about the way(s) they express Blackness. I wondered if it was fair for me to have the same expectation of my non-Black students. But I figured, fuck it. Writing the paper required all of them to soul search. They’d have figure out for themselves what it means to be Black and how they, as individuals, fit into that narrative. It’s an opportunity to process through a different prism.
In the beginning of Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness, Touré lists his interview questions. There are some good ones designed to move the windmills of your mind and to jump-start dialogue. Touré asks: What does being Black mean to you? Does being Black mean something different today than it did 40 years ago? Would you feel comfortable eating fried chicken or watermelon around white people? My students and I talk about these questions, and we try to answer them too. I’ve noticed that the younger ones always respond in post-Black, individualistic ways. And the older students often answer from a collective perspective.
It always starts this way though. No one likes to admit that they still subscribe to a trauma narrative about the Black American experience. That they still wear “the struggle,” and are still caught up in it. Post-Blackness gives folks license to slough off that trauma, and move on. In a way, it’s like a second Emancipation Proclamation. This time though, Blacks are liberated from an imposed responsibility for advancing the race. You get to just “do you,” without worrying about whether it helps or hurts Us-at-large. “Us” is not your priority; you are. Post-Blackness allows Blackness to be embraced in a continuum, where Clarence Thomas-types can be at one end and Angela Davis-types can be at the other. And it’s all the same. Angela Davis hasn’t kept it real, and Clarence Thomas hasn’t sold out. Each of them performs Blackness in their own way, and each expression of Blackness is as legitimate, and as authentic as the other.
Post-Blackness represents the freedom to be an individual. To that end, it’s possible no one embodies the Post-Black
pathology ideology quite like Dave Chappelle. “Chappelle Show” was absolutely fearless in the way it handled the social and cultural constructions of race in America. The third chapter of Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness is titled “The Rise and Fall of a Post-Black King”. In it, Touré presents several of Chappelle’s most hilarious, most provocative, and most brilliant comedy sketches cum social commentaries on race. But they’re so much better in video. See for yourself.
The Niggar Family
Frontline – Clayton Bigsby, Black White Supremacist
These sketches worked because they made it seem like we could actually be evolved and mature in discussing race – so conscious, as it were, that we could even be irreverent about it.
But alas, as I mentioned, Chapter 3 of ‘Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness’ is titled “The Rise and Fall of a Post-Black King.” Remember, Dave Chappelle walked away from “Chappelle’s Show” and away from his $50 million contract with Comedy Central because he felt like folks no longer laughed with him. Whereas initially, the point was to be funny and if somewhere along the way, a sentient message about race relations emerged, that was even better. But in the end, Chappelle felt more responsibility than that. In other words, the irreverence for Blackness that Post-Blackness encourages and excuses is cool until it’s not – that is, honestly, until white folks laugh a little too hard at depictions of slavery, or get too comfortable misunderstanding nigga/nigger. “You start to realize that these sketches, in the wrong hands, are dangerous.”
The history of race relations in America makes discussions of race slippery and uncomfortable. Being able to laugh about it certainly lightens things up, but the sore still festers if we really aren’t yet evolved and mature enough to also recognize the blues of it all.
The blues of the Black American experience are still palpable for a good number of folks because, although some of us have managed to exorcise ourselves from the charge of race consciousness by standing proudly as Post-Black, the world in which we live, unfortunately, isn’t so evolved.