A New York Times review of Colson Whitehead's new book, "Sag Harbor," poses the question: Is there post-black lit? Books on the Root explores the collision of race, books, and the Internet.
Are you Black or Post-Black?
The world of books has always offered insight into race matters in this country. Couple that with the internet and there's a lot to talk about. Earlier this week author and critic, Touré reviewed Colson Whitehead's new book "Sag Harbor" for the New York Times Book Review. And as ringShout pointed out, bruh was on the cover, a rarity for that establishment.
Sidenote: I haven’t had the opportunity to read the book, although I look forward to it, especially after reading the four features that the New York Times published about it. Yes, four. Anyway, a nice chunk of Touré's piece revolves around the increased emergence of post-black art. He writes:
"Now that we've got a post-black president, all the rest of the post-blacks can be unapologetic as we reshape the iconography of blackness. For so long, the definition of blackness was dominated by the '60s street-fighting militancy of the Jesses and the irreverent one-foot-out-the-ghetto angry brilliance of the Pryors and the nihilistic, unrepentantly ghetto, new-age thuggishness of the 50 Cents. A decade ago they called post-blacks Oreos because we didn't think blackness equaled ghetto, didn't mind having white influencers, didn't seem full of anger about the past. We were comfortable employing blackness as a grace note rather than as our primary sound. Post-blackness sees blackness not as a dogmatic code worshiping at the altar of the hood and the struggle but as an open-source document, a trope with infinite uses."
I get what Touré is saying. In fact, I was dissed, called oreo, white girl, and other names by my black peers. And lawd knows I am trying to get the young black men I work with to expand their definitions about what it means to be young and black. And well we all know the type of "darkness" that descends upon many people in this country when they think of anything resembling black. But there's something about the championing of post-black in this article that seems a little misdirected.
"The term began in the art world with a class of black artists who were adamant about not being labeled black artists even as their work redefined notions of blackness. Now the meme is slowly expanding into the wider consciousness. For so long we were stamped inauthentic and bullied into an inferiority complex by the harder brothers and sisters, but now it's our turn to take center stage. Now Kanye, Questlove, Santigold, Zadie Smith and Colson Whitehead can do blackness their way without fear of being branded pseudo or incognegro."
I can just hear it. Post-black to black: "Look, told you we are the new black, just look at our president. Take that with your black(er) self."
Please believe: I champion black folk having the freedom to exert and embrace their "blackness" as they see fit. Personally, I don't see my blackness as a hindrance or contradiction to any of my aspirations, dreams, music preferences, or dating choices. It's everyone else-peers, outsiders, strangers, black and white-who have a problem with my blackness and how I wear it. My charge to them: get over it. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don't. But I don't feel a need to embrace special terminology to help them get over whatever discrepancies they have regarding their idea of blackness and my fulfillment of it. I'd rather expand the confines of blackness in our collective consciousnesses and realities through the live I lead instead of employing yet another divider (read: label) to separate an already fractured community. Aren't we trying to break cycles, not recreate them?
As Touré suggests at the end of his article, we do need more fiction that examines a diversity of lives, period. And I would love a world where character trumps color and people could be themselves, completely, without the pressures of adhering to stereotypical or limited notions of identity.
So my question: Is post-black, as a designation for a group of people, the path to get us there? Honestly, it would be hard for me to truly claim post-black until some folk became post-white.
White Writing Black, Black Writing White
A few weeks ago, I came across an interesting opinion about Tom Piazza's celebrated Katrina novel, "City of Refuge." I haven't read the book, but a Powells.com blogger thinks that Piazza did a disservice to his black characters. Brockman writes:
"My problem wasn't just the phonetic dialogue, but also the sense of Piazza as journalist, watching through a window and jotting down notes on behavior without really climbing inside his black characters. I wrestled with these issues on almost every single page of the novel, staring at one page for an hour or two while a circuitous debate raged in my head.
Piazza seems to really "get" the upper-middle-class white characters, to write in a manner that explores their psychology and gets down to the marrow (even if said marrow starts out as an overly familiar case of middle-class suburban malaise). The lower-class black characters, however, are written about, at a slight distance, as though Piazza couldn't quite penetrate the skin.
But doesn't he deserve points for trying?
Maybe - but aren't there any number of talented African-American writers who could have nailed these lives (and the voices they use) more intimately?"
It's not a matter of white writing black or black writing white. It's a matter of writing write, writing true to character. Sometimes writers get lazy and rely on stereotypes, superficial sensibilities, or their own voices when writing characters with identities different from their own-this of course includes gender, sexual orientation, class, etc. It's no shock that this happens both subtlety and overtly in all kinds of books, even those written for children as recently explored by writer Mitali Perkins. Brockman raises some valid points, but of course now I must read "City of Refuge" to judge for myself.
White People + Literature by Black People = Confusion?
Around the same time I found the above, I stumbled upon a blog by a white bookseller who ponders, "What do I, a white person, have to do with literature by black writers? Am I meant to appreciate it apart from the writers' identities, or is it meant to allow me to identify with someone other than myself?" With such internal confusion, I can bet that she's not doing much hand-selling of "It Really Is Only a Black Thang" by Negro Wilson. But for real, it's not her act of questioning that bothers me because sometimes these types of inquires lead to reflection and genuine truth-seeking. What's really hard to swallow is that she isn't a casual Sunday reader. She's a bookseller, someone who is involved in the business of literature. Her question could easily be, what do white people have to do with literature by black writers? And such a question could (un)consciously inform many decisions.
Even as I make it my business to highlight great works by black writers, I have never asked myself about my connection to the entire body of literature by non-black people, as if all of it is monolithic and I need a universal how-to guide.
While we're on this topic, might as well share an open secret: black bibliophiles who want to see great books by black writers get the respect they deserve are still booklovers, rarely do we read or appreciate exclusively black. How could we in America?