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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African Americans fight a multifront struggle in pursuing their ambitions. Along with the difficulties that others face -- bad luck, personal deficiencies, talented competitors -- blacks face additional obstacles. On one front they encounter prejudiced Caucasians. On another they encounter Negroes who, attached to stunted conceptions of racial solidarity, habitually castigate as disloyal blacks perceived as "acting white," being "oreos," "selling out."

Blacks characteristically confront white racism with uninhibited fury. With black critics, however, they often display ambivalence. Even when chafing miserably from constraints imposed by racial solidarity, many blacks nonetheless bite their tongues. They refrain from speaking openly and frankly because the rhetoric and performance of racial solidarity occupies an honored position in black American circles. It has claims on blacks' psyches even as they wrestle with the restraints that solidarity entails.

In Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness: What It Means to Be Black Now (Free Press), Touré assails "self-appointed identity cops" who write "Authenticity Violations as if they were working for Internal Affairs making sure everyone does Blackness in the right way." His aim is to "destroy the idea that there is a correct or legitimate way of doing Blackness," maintaining that "if there's a right way then there must be a wrong way, and that [that] kind of thinking cuts us off from exploring the full potential of Black humanity." Touré claims that he wants African Americans to have the freedom to be black in whatever ways they choose and that he aspires "to banish from the collective mind the bankrupt, fraudulent concept of 'authentic' Blackness."

"Post-Blackness" is the label Touré deploys to describe the sensibility he champions, a "modern individualist Blackness" that enthusiastically endorses novelty and diversity, fluidity and experimentation. "Post-Blackness," he insists, "is not a box, it's an unbox. It opens the door to everything. It's open-ended and open-sourced and endlessly customizable. It's whatever you want it to be." "Post-Blackness" means, he says, that "we are [like President Barack Obama] rooted in, but not restricted by, Blackness."

Touré, a 40-year-old author of three previous books, a contributing editor to Rolling Stone and a correspondent for MSNBC, is a keen student and practitioner of publicity who rounds up a posse of artists, scholars and journalists to assist with the promotion of his brand of "post-Blackness."

In Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness, he prominently features, for example, professor Michael Eric Dyson. "We've got to do away with the notion," Dyson writes, "that there's something that all Black folk have to believe in order to be Black. We've got to give ourselves permission to divide into subgroups, or out-groups, organized around what we like and dislike, and none of us is less or more Black for doing so."

"The undeniable need to fight oppression," Dyson declares, "can't overshadow the freedom to live and think Blackness just as we please." "Post-Blackness," he insists, "has little patience for racial patriotism, racial fundamentalism, and racial policing."

Selling Out or Not?

Touré and his allies are right to be concerned about charges of racial disloyalty. As I showed in Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal, the specter of defection occupies a salient place in the African-American mind and soul. It figures in novels (such as Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man), in films (Spike Lee's Bamboozled), in hip-hop (the Geto Boys' "No Sell Out") and in writings questioning whether blacks have an obligation to reside in "the hood," marry within the race or decline certain careers, such as prosecutor.

Anxieties over racial loyalty are echoed in incantations such as "Don't forget where you come from" and "Stay black." They are glimpsed in the obsessive scrutiny of prominent blacks for evidence of inadequate commitment to black solidarity.

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