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NEGRO SUNSHINE

 

 

By Wahneema Lubiano | with thanks to NewBlackman

 

Saturday, December 10, 2011.

 

As some of the contributors articulated in Toure’s Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness, others in numerous pieces of scholarship produced over the past decades, and still others in public discussion in various places, Blackness is both a form of chosen identity and, at the same time, is an imposition from the larger social order.  Under some circumstances that imposition has coercive power and pressure behind it; we don’t live solely within the terms of our own imaginations, not even in our own drama around that identity.  That external imposition often interrupts our identity reveries and speaks a pathology narrative about us and does so sometimes with and sometimes without our own consent.  It is that understanding of the imposition of coercive history in the present moment that makes “post-blackness” inadequate as a rubric for accurately describing the effects of structural racism, of white supremacy in the present.  And Toure takes note of that fact in his book. 

 

But “post-blackness” is also situational—or, as Michael Eric Dyson asserts in the introduction: “. . . Blackness bends to the tongue it tumbles from at any given moment of time” (xii).  And it is in this regard that I’m interested to some great extent in specific situational elements of the phrase’s use: its use as a means to describe a moment in cultural, artistic, or emotional self-understanding – yes, there indeed I can see its usefulness and it is that usefulness that I’m addressing when I’m quoted in the book talking about why Dave Chapelle’s show prompted me away from any simple dismissal of the phrase when Toure first brought it up in our conversation.  I thought that the phrase was a useful way to describe what I saw as a kind of pre-figurative existence in Chapelle’s work—he was performing possibilities of art—of humor and wit—that were not completely captured by the imposition of social blackness both across our history and in the present moment.

 

But “post-blackness” is also situational—or, as Michael Eric Dyson asserts in the introduction: “. . . Blackness bends to the tongue it tumbles from at any given moment of time” (xii).  And it is in this regard that I’m interested to some great extent in specific situational elements of the phrase’s use: its use as a means to describe a moment in cultural, artistic, or emotional self-understanding – yes, there indeed I can see its usefulness and it is that usefulness that I’m addressing when I’m quoted in the book talking about why Dave Chapelle’s show prompted me away from any simple dismissal of the phrase when Toure first brought it up in our conversation.  I thought that the phrase was a useful way to describe what I saw as a kind of pre-figurative existence in Chapelle’s work—he was performing possibilities of art—of humor and wit—that were not completely captured by the imposition of social blackness both across our history and in the present moment.

 

Yet, the phrase itself is redolent of past decades of anxiety about black art, black cultural production—an anxiety exemplified in the 1926 fight, in the pages of The Nation magazine, between Langston Hughes (“The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”) and George Schuyler (“The Negro Art Hokum”) around the burden of representation (as Stuart Hall has described it) for Negro artists.  “Post-blackness” is a rubric that reminds me that cultural producers are continually caught in the dilemma in the West of a pressure to define themselves, to distinguish themselves, as mythic individuals—that’s the ur-narrative of U.S. individuality writ large; so, of course, artists, other cultural producers, cultural critics, and we ourselves continually produce narratives of “generational shift”—it’s a handy way to make individual space, to posit a conversational imperative, and have that imperative recognized. And it doesn’t much matter, when that posture is assumed, that space claimed, whether it is a new moment in fact or a seemingly new moment—the gesture is meant to establish a possibility here and now.  I find those repeated moments sociologically rich and interesting.

 

But while I don’t want to cast aspersions on that gesture, I do want to move onto something else that came up as we explored the gesture of Thelma Golden and Glenn Ligon, something that I’d love to talk about more, if people care to, and it’s this: the social utility, the currency, of post-blackness. Let me make what I’m saying more concrete.

 

When Toure asked me about the most racist thing that ever happened to me, my first response (along with many of the other contributors he quoted) was to say that structural racism enacted itself in such a way that I wasn’t personally confronted with the most racist things that had ever happened to me.  But Toure pushed back on this; he pushed me to think about my earlier and younger understandings of racism: the moment prior to my arrival at an analysis of structural racism.  He wanted me to speak about something that hurt way back when.  So, I told a story from my high school years and a bad encounter with a guidance counselor bigot because that story gave me a chance to talk about Howard University; being a student at Howard was a moment of a kind of pre-figurative post-blackness for me.  The most powerful take-away of that story was not the incident with the guidance counselor.  What transformed my life was my discovery of a rich and complex existence within the terms of blackness (a situated blackness) at Howard University.  I found ordinary life at Howard. (That was the saving grace.)

 

My imagination’s earned currency of post-blackness in turn contributed to a moment of real tension at the end of my interview with Toure when we were talking about Barack Obama, and he asked “How do we create more Barack Obamas?”  In my response, I remember telling Toure that while Obama is certainly exceptional in that sense that he’s the U.S. head of state, he is also ordinary; he is the matter-of-fact product of his class origins and his elite education.  I know thousands of people who are proudly Black and intellectual, as Toure described him, but Obama’s existence, like theirs, like ours, was largely a matter of chance and the specifics of history.  An elite education produces a Barack Obama or any number of other specific kinds of black—or other—intellectuals. 

 

It is the constraint of capitalism that restricts those numbers.  My last sentence of that exchange was “And I think capitalism is a really bad idea.”  I remember that Toure responded with “Wow, we’ll really have to talk about that sometime.” 

 

This then might be a great time for all of us to talk about the currency of post-blackness within the terms of late capitalism in this moment of occupy everywhere.

 

***

 Wahneema Lubiano is Associate Professor of Literature and African & African American Studies at Duke University.  Lubiano is the editor of The House That Race Built:  Black Americans, US Terrain

 

 

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