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.

“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.

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 … “