Author Toure's latest book 'Post-Blackness' is full of truths and agitation
It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Black
Touré Neblett is the cultural critic folks love to hate. An author, journalist, TV host and all around talking head known simply by his first name for nearly two decades, Touré is an unabashed contrarian. Often insightful, often snarky viewpoints dominate his Twitter timeline (34,000+ followers strong), and his latest book—Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness: What It Means to Be Black Now—seems tailor-made for water-cooler conversation concerning the black identity in the age of Obama. Synthesizing the thoughts of 105 interviewees (Jesse Jackson, Malcolm Gladwell, Chuck D, Cornel West, etc.), Touré takes square aim at the myth that there’s one monolithic way to act African-American.
The meme is an old one for Touré. In a 1993 Essence magazine essay, he recounted the exact same story told in his new book’s “Shut Up, Touré! You Ain’t Black” chapter, about a college classmate calling him out publicly at a party, angrily voicing what seemed to be on everyone else’s mind. Touré grew up in suburban (read: lily white) Randolph, Massachusetts; he attended prep schools, including the esteemed Milton Academy; he pledged a white fraternity; he played tennis before Venus and Serena Williams were ever heard of; he dated white girls, and would later marry “outside the race.” Possibly troubled by the legitimacy of his own race card long before his classmate’s accusation, Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness sometimes reads like an exorcism of the author’s own demons: no way can Touré not be “black enough,” because, by his own book’s estimation, there’s no black standard to live up to, and never really was. Enter post-blackness.
Thelma Golden, chief curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem, first coined the term to describe a movement in the art world in the late 1990s. “When I described my initial thoughts about this book to Golden…it felt like I was asking her if I could take her magnificent, ultra-rare, expensive car for a drive on the highway,” Touré writes. “In essence, she said she wouldn’t drive it on the highway but I could, if I dared.” Golden’s car may not have been all that ultra-rare to begin with. Author Trey Ellis—unacknowledged in Post-Blackness—made noise in 1989 with a seminal essay entitled “The New Black Aesthetic,” citing the black rock band Fishbone, among others, as so-called cultural mulattoes who prove that blackness is much more multivalent than most people admit.
Likewise unmentioned by Touré is The Black List, a trilogy of films produced by fellow critic Elvis Mitchell that plays as a cinematic precursor to Post-Blackness: blacks from a wide variety of backgrounds contemplating what it means to be black. (Mitchell and Touré even speak to some of the same people: Thelma Golden, Al Sharpton, Kara Walker.) So neither the thesis of Post-Blackness nor many of the ideas fleshing it out are strictly Touré’s own. That said, the book is still well worth the read, with challenging ideas that merit the debates they’re sure to stir up.
Always a deft essayist, Touré offers up an excellent pop-culture deconstruction of comedian Dave Chappelle’s short-lived Chappelle’s Show (“The Rise and Fall of a Post-Black King”). What makes Chappelle post-blackness royalty? If you have to ask, the concept might be over your head. Take the Wayne Brady sketch, in which the affable improv comic plays against his image and goes gangsta. “If you thought he was just a white-loving Tom, you’ve gotta rethink him because he’s just shown you the breadth of blackness available to him is as wide as the continuum itself and his control over his performance of blackness rivals the physical agility of an NFL wide receiver,” Touré says. “The ability and the need to mediate between different ways of performing blackness exists in all black people, especially in the modern era where we typically work, party, and/or live in a racially mixed world.”
In 2011, readers should hardly be surprised about blacks enjoying ballet, vacationing at Martha’s Vineyard, taking European vacations, graduating Ivy League schools, reading David Foster Wallace or practicing yoga. None of this is remotely new, and could only challenge someone’s view of “authentic blackness” if he or she’s been living under a rock since the civil rights era. But Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness goes deeper, touching on how blacks’ self-image has morphed since the 1960s, the evolution of racism in America, and the proper way for blacks to “perform blackness” in order to succeed in modern-day politics.
Touré once remarked that Christopher Hitchens’ Letters to a Young Contrarian changed his life. This is no shock. His shtick to provoke once led him to tweet about slave rape in terms of “sexually heroic” women using their bodies for liberation and status, a pretty putrid brain fart. But Post-Blackness comes far more correct than that. “One cannot honestly say some person is not black for doing blackness ‘incorrectly’ or for some crime against the race, like the way they talk, because every way of being black is acceptable,” he says. His point is hard—and unnecessary—to argue.