By Andre Seewood | Shadow and Act December 19, 2011 at 1:26PM
Every movement, artistic or political, has need of a manifesto to define itself from what preceded it, to sharpen the perspective of its practitioners and most importantly, to inspire others. Whether it was The Surrealist Manifesto by Andre Breton, The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the critical writings of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute in defining the French Nouveau Roman (New Novel), or the Dogme 95 manifesto by Danish filmmakers Lars Van Trier and Thomas Vinterberg; a manifesto is a declarative statement that puts all those who follow old traditions and outdated ideologies on notice that a new idealism has arrived. For those of us African-American artists and intellectuals who have ever felt limited by the traditional meanings of Blackness held by our own race and by those outside of our race, we have written for us a new manifesto upon which we can be so inspired to throw off the shackles of the past that limited our future: WHO’S AFRAID OF POST-BLACKNESS: What It Means to Be Black Now, the new book by Touré is that new manifesto.
Now the notion of Post-Blackness may strike the mind as absurd; how can anyone or anything be “Post-Black”? As many of us have had to say to another,” All I gotta do is stay Black and die, you ain’t talking about shit to me.” In fact, in one of the outtakes of the many interviews that comprise the book, noted author Greg Tate expresses some of the cynicism that surrounds the term when he says,” The funny thing about post-Blackness for me… is I know that it’s a term that was like a clever marketing idea to promote a show of younger Black artists.” (pg.216) But we should not let the cynicism of our late capitalist era, where everything is simply a sales slogan for something else, turn us off from comprehending that racial identity is often the very tool used to keep us from exploring and expressing our full potential. As Touré succinctly suggests,” To experience the full possibilities of Blackness, you must break free of the strictures sometimes placed on Blackness from outside the African-American culture and also from within it.” (pg.4) Moving from painting and visual artists, through performance art, poetry, comedy and music Touré is relentless in finding a means,” to attack and destroy the idea that there is a correct or legitimate way of doing Blackness,” and he subsequently articulates, if not a method then at least a means of,” exploring the full potential of Black humanity.” (pg.11)
The term “Post-Blackness” expresses a fluid and ever expanding ideal of racial identity that takes into consideration the new problems and changes in class, economy, gender relations, language, music and image that have affected the post-Civil Rights generation of African-Americans. If our racial identity in the pre-Civil rights era carried with it the burden of collective representation (“don’t act your color”), then Post-Blackness expresses our changing and broadening racial identity as it relates to individual expression (“I am more than just my color”). One of the greatest aspects of this book is that it is not just from the perspective of one author, instead Touré interviews a wide array of artists, political leaders, musicians, painters, lyricists, and performance artists who happen to be African-American that in sum suggests that Post-Blackness is not just a rarified concept or intellectual catch-phrase. Instead, these diverse interviews reveal that Post-Blackness is a real, tangible ideological and artistic perspective shared by many African-Americans who have until now expressed the same sentiments but lacked a manifesto through which they could sharpen and define themselves into a movement.
It might seem unfair to characterize Touré’s work as a manifesto since most artists usually end up distancing themselves from the limitations contained in what is often called a manifesto, but Touré’s book is a manifesto of a different kind- it is a manifesto that “attacks and destroys” the limits we have placed around our own racial identity and those that others outside of our race have tried to place around us. It is a manifesto that attacks those “resume-checking”, condescending, micro-aggressive White folks who feel that the greatest insult you can hurl at them is to call them racist, yet as Prof. Elizabeth Alexander notes in an interview from the book,” if you allow white people to gauge the value of your mind you will most likely be undervalued.” (pg.130) It is also a manifesto that “attacks and destroys” those Black folks who feel they have a right to “authenticate” what is Black, who is Black and what isn’t Black and who ain’t Black. In a soul defining moment in the book Touré recounts being accused of not being “black” by a fellow African-American college student and it was this moment that led him to the conclusion that,” we cannot abandon Blackness even if we commit treason against it.” (pg. 97) WHO’S AFRAID OF POST-BLACKNESS is a double consciousness manifesto in the Du Boisian sense of that phrase.
Many of the concepts in Touré’s book have been explored in other works like the notion of “micro aggressions” as,” subtle, stunning, often automatic, sometimes non-verbal exchanges that are put-downs of Blacks by whites,” that is borrowed from social psychology. (pg. 81) The “Stereotype threat, the idea that when you fear being judged by or living down to a stereotype, that alone is disruptive enough to negatively impact your performance,” is also a concept explored in psychology. (pg. 82) In fact many jaded African-Americans will find nothing new in Touré’s work, especially those who have always known that we are free and not limited by our racial identity. For these jaded African-Americans reading POST-BLACKNESS remind us of Freedmen watching as the Emancipation Proclamation was being read to slaves and hearing a Freedman scoff,” Fools, you shoulda just took your freedom.” We can no longer afford to assume that everyone else knows what we know and that if they don’t then they are part of some ignorant class that deserves what they get. The elitism of many African-Americans is just as destructive, if not more so, than the very ignorance of others that appalls them.
What Touré has done is to parse the dense social psychological work on race and frame as many of the sentiments of African-American authors, intellectuals and artists as he could into a cohesive perspective through which we can create a shield for a movement that will withstand assaults from within and outside of the race. It is a shield that doubles as a mirror which allows us to see that if we are African-American we are not simply to be defined by what we have done, but instead by what each one of us dares to do beyond that definition.
If there is any one flaw in the book, if there is any limit within the inspiring and otherwise brilliant manifesto that I proclaim Touré has given us, it is the fact that he does not discuss in detail African-American film and the limits and boundaries of African-American representation within that medium. He only interviews three significant African-American filmmakers, Rusty Cundieff (Fear of a Black Hat), Nelson George (Everyday People), Reggie Hudlin (House Party) and a few screenwriters, but in my opinion the perspective of Post-Blackness has startling implications as it relates to the kind of films we want to make about African-Americans and the kinds of films that have been used to define Blackness in the past and currently. Not to worry, I direct you to my book, SLAVE CINEMA: The Crisis of the African-American in Film 2nd Edition which takes the same perspective that Touré collected from painters, writers, politicians and lyricists and applies it to filmmaking. In my work I claim that African-American racial identity is constricted,” in such a way as to make many of us resistant to lifestyles, geographic locations, activities, intellectual and business pursuits, fashions, hairstyles, gestures and manners of speech that are not sanctioned by the African-American community at large.” (pg. 120) This racial constriction has a negative impact on the kinds of films we want to make and the kinds of films that get made for the African-American audience. Understanding that even if one does not subscribe to such a limited perspective of Blackness, in the business and practice of filmmaking we are often constricted by the limited perspective of those who fund our films (White people) and those who determine whether or not a film is “authentically” Black (the African-American audience). Even though I do not use the term “Post-Blackness” in my work, Touré and I arrive at the same destination as it concerns African-American racial identity and artistic expression. What my book and Touré’s WHO’S AFRAID OF POST-BLACKNESS require of you is a sense that a change is needed and that change itself should not be feared.
Andre Seewood is the author of SLAVE CINEMA: The Crisis of the African-American in Film. Pick up a copy of the book via Amazon.com HERE.