Back in Black

2 May

Have you guys ever seen the movie Jumping the Broom? If not, you’ve clearly not been watching enough 3 a.m. weekend HBO.

The movie follows a newly engaged couple, whose parents meet for the first time the weekend of their wedding. Groom-to-be Jason comes from a working-class African-American family, and his mother doesn’t take super kindly to the parents of bride-to-be Sabrina, who are also African-American but live in a gigantic mansion and speak French and shit. The title of the movie comes from a clash between the two families—Jason’s mother wants the pair to “jump the broom” at their wedding, a Black American tradition that involves newlyweds jumping over a ceremonial (but literal) broom. (Since slaves couldn’t actually get married, they would jump the broom to symbolize their union.) Jason’s family has done it for generations; Sabrina’s was too busy being rich and speaking French. Cue conflict.

Anyway, I’m not reviewing Jumping the Broom (which I actually enjoyed, but maybe my standards are different after 2 a.m.), but it just so happens to jibe almost perfectly with the book I’ve been reading for the last two weeks—Touré’s Who’s Afraid of Post Blackness? What it Means to be Black Now

The central idea of the book is this (and believe me, I’m simplifying): In a time when black people not only dominate music and sports, but have also become CEOs, artists, politicians and (perhaps most importantly), a president of the United States, what exactly does it mean to be black these days? How do black people marry their relatively new opportunity to exist in a more equal (though still wildly unequal) society with the reality of generations of oppression? And what can black people do to expand their own definition of Blackness to include tastes, interests, professions and walks of life that perhaps don’t mesh with the stereotypical definition of what it means to grow up black? Is one black person claiming another doesn’t talk/seem/act black enough just as harmful to the race as the lingering racism levied against them by the rest of society? And so on.

Anecdote time: Shortly after I moved to New York, I was riding the subway in the Bronx, on my way to work. While sitting on the train, a woman—who was black—sat down next to me in a seat that didn’t exist. Which is to say that three people were already on the subway bench and she decided to sit down anyway, effectively squishing everyone else. Not thrilled with the idea of spending my remaining train ride getting to accidental first base with a fellow passenger, I simply got up and went to stand by the door. This woman—and I remember this vividly—then turned to me and said loudly enough for most of the surrounding car to hear: “Racist.”

This story for me is symbolic of how difficult and problematic racism is in this country. Was I offended that this woman presumed my prejudice when the reality is she clearly didn’t understand subway seating etiquette? Of course. But did I still feel somehow cowed by her exclamation, or ashamed that I had done something that could even be perceived as racist? Absolutely. Black people, as Touré points out repeatedly in Post-Blackness, can’t help but feel defensive when it comes to how they’re being perceived by whites. After all, there are hundreds of years of history to back up their suspicion. In the 150+ interviews with black leaders and cultural figures Touré conducted for this book, many said that they still wouldn’t feel comfortable eating watermelon in a room full of white people, or ordering fried chicken in a predominantly white restaurant. Many said they adjust their body language, or speech, when they’re around white friends and colleagues, or try to appear less “threatening” to account for any accidentally assumed attempts at intimidation.

But perhaps more interesting than the traditional racial dynamic is Touré’s exploration of what black people do for other black people, to avoid the perception of diluting their Blackness. He shares stories of friends and acquaintances who were ridiculed for speaking eloquently, or studying hard, or doing well in school.  He discusses perceptions about darker versus lighter skin, about having a low-income versus an upper-middle-class background and about the ongoing debate over casual use of the n word. He raises points I wouldn’t have thought of, and makes assertions I found thought-provoking and insightful. He doles out blame for the state of black America fairly and without partisanship, pointing out the depressingly constant tone of racism in this country but also acknowledging behaviors and attitudes on the part of black Americans that do nothing to help—and may even contribute to—that bias.

Post-Blackness is fascinating, and in about 300 pages gave me more perspective on a culture than I would have dared expect. The book is well-written and poignant, funny and cutting and insightful in equal measure, but more than anything I think it’s brave. There were parts I didn’t agree with, parts that made me uncomfortable, and parts that I found myself witnessing in everyday life (a weekend that included Jumping the Broom and Memphis notwithstanding.) Race is a complex and sensitive topic that few approach truly fearlessly. After reading Post-Blackness, I’d say Touré is doing it justice.

TITLE: Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? What it Means to Be Black Now
AUTHOR:  Touré
PAGES: 243 (in hardcover)
ALSO WROTE: Soul City, Never Drank the Kool-Aid
SORTA LIKE: Tavis Smiley and Cornel West had a baby
FIRST LINE: “Once, I went skydiving.”

One Response to “Back in Black”

  1. Anonymous May 2, 2012 at 12:27 pm #

    OK, one more for the list : ) I assume you’re reading it on Kindle or I’d borrow it!

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