Earlier this year, the Internet was abuzz with a series of videos entitled Art Thoughtz. In them, artist Jayson Musson performs as his fitted-cap-wearing, flashy-chain-dangling alter ego, Hennessy Youngman, while offering sharp, LOL-worthy commentary on the contemporary art world. He tackles concepts like relational aesthetics and post-structuralism. He gives advice on subjects such as "How to be a Successful Black Artist" (Musson himself is black). In that video, the typically unflappable Youngman finds himself flustered trying to explain the concept of post-black. "Honestly, I don't know what the fuck that means. 'Cause it means like, after black," he says. "Did someone from the future come back with that term, and niggas is, like, pink in the future?"
Like a response to Youngman's hanging question, cultural critic and author Touré's carefully considered, absorbing new book sets up the idea of "post-black" like a big, bad wolf: Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness?: What It Means to Be Black Now. Citing interviews with a large swath of black cultural figures from activist and professor Cornel West to artist Kara Walker, Touré's work defines our current times as a post-black era. The author explains, saying "the definitions and boundaries of Blackness are expanding [...] leaving behind the vision of Blackness as something narrowly definable and [...] embracing every conception of Blackness as legitimate."
On its face, this is a simple, even obvious idea: Why would such a broad category of identity be narrowly definable? Yet Touré thoroughly unpacks the complications, from addressing notions of authentic or legitimate blackness to parsing the problems of post-racial thinking. In a chapter titled "Keep It Real Is a Prison," Touré swiftly moves between referencing an essay by novelist Zadie Smith, considering Walker's comic visions of slavery, and discussing Clarence Thomas's biography with Juan Williams as a way of exploring what might be considered "authentic Black experience." Touré possesses a mastery of everything from the broadest strokes of popular culture to the finest points of contemporary art.
Touré's conception of post-blackness is rooted in his experience coming of age after the Civil Rights era. The 40-year-old author describes "a critical generational break from that part of Black history in which to be Black meant a near-constant, warlike struggle for de jure and de facto rights. [...] When I was old enough to hold a gun there wasn't much to take up arms about. The battles had to be fought in a more nuanced way."
Touré is especially acute in analyzing contemporary racism, making sure not confuse post-blackness with post-racial ideas. "Post-racial posits that race does not exist or that we're somehow beyond race and suggests colorblindness: It's a bankrupt concept that reflects a naïve understanding of race in America," he writes. A passage later in the book explores the existential anxieties provoked by being followed by a black security guard in a department store. The anecdote cleverly illustrates the silent, Byzantine threads of racism in everyday life, proof enough that our time is anything but beyond race.
In the end, Touré's conception of post-blackness looks unflinchingly forward. He sees world-changing promise in expanding conceptions of blackness and considers it no less than a force of "spiritual liberation." That's a future even Hennessy Youngman could get behind.
Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness?: What It Means to Be Black Now by Touré, with a foreword by Michael Eric Dyson. Free Press. $25. 252 pp.