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The Fallacy of Touré's Post-Blackness Theory

In his latest book, the cultural critic argues that African Americans should never have their racial loyalty or authenticity questioned. This reviewer disagrees.

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These fears prompt blacks, especially those in elite, predominantly white settings, to signal conspicuously their allegiance to blackness. This angst contributes to the rise of what journalist John Blake termed "soul patrols," cliques of black folk "who impose their definition of blackness on other black people." Writing in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1992, in an article that Touré could have usefully cited, Blake complained that soul patrols are not content with choosing your friends. "They want to tell you how to think, where to live, how to do your job."

Touré's principal complaint with those he sneeringly dismisses as racial-identity police is that their disapproval trenches on personal freedom. He wants black people to be able to do what they please, free of inhibitory racial expectations. He wants blacks to be able to occupy offices as corporate or governmental chief executives without being immediately hectored as sellouts.

He wants African Americans to be able to have nonblack romantic partners without facing charges of racial abandonment. He wants Negroes out in public to be able to eat fried chicken or watermelon without feeling that they are disgracing the race. He wants black artists to be able to play with depictions of slavery, segregation or anything else without being indicted for defaming Afro-America.

Call the Blackness Police

Touré rightly assails principles or tactics that impose wrongful constraints on blacks (or anyone else). He errs, however, when he adopts a stance of libertarian absolutism, according to which it is always wrong for one black person to question another black person's fidelity to black America. This is the stance taken by Stephen L. Carter in Confessions of an Affirmative Action Baby, in which he wrote, "Loving our people and loving our culture does not require any restriction on what black people can think or say or do or be ... "

No restriction? But what about an African American who expresses racial hatred for blacks? Or what about an African American who joins a legitimate black-uplift organization for the purpose of crippling it? Blacks (or anyone else) who do or say such things ought to be shunned as forcefully as possible in order to punish them, render them ineffective and dissuade others from following a similar course.

Some ideas ought to be stifled. Determining what ideas should meet that fate under what circumstances and by what means are large, complex, daunting questions that warrant the most careful attention. The world is awash in destructive censorship. And the broad swath of cultural freedom that has been painstakingly won in the United States is a treasure for which Americans should be willing to fight. At the same time, it bears repeating that under some circumstances, people behaving in certain ways -- which includes the expression of certain ideas -- ought to be ostracized.

Touré is rightly appalled by the pettiness, narrowness, bigotry and dictatorial character of those who have intermittently afflicted Negroes with destructive bouts of internecine warfare. Hence the purgings committed by proponents of Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association, Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam and H. Rap Brown's Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. "We've all heard and felt," Touré observes, "the Blackness police among us -- or within us -- judging and convicting and sentencing and verbally or mentally casting people out of the race for large and small offenses."

What Does It Mean to Be Black?

Touré's response is to so broaden the boundaries of blackness that no black person can properly be "convicted" of straying outside. In this post-black era, Touré writes, "the definitions and boundaries of Blackness are expanding ... into infinity ... [O]ur identity options are limitless." According to Touré, "Blackness is not a club you can be expelled from ... We've been arguing for decades and decades about identity and authenticity and who's Black and who's not and I want to yell above the din -- Truce! We're all Black! We all win!"