As the subtitle of our blog indicates, we are fascinated with the workings of “postmodern blackness” here in the Bottom. But what does this phrase mean? And how does it shape the way Frieda and I approach the content on our site?
Postmodernism is not easily explained, particularly given the fact that its definition is relative to Modernism, and it varies in art, architecture, literature, philosophy, and theology. (Even the Wikipedia entry is fairly convoluted.) Still, our understanding of this shape-shifting concept, as it relates to African-American culture, is influenced by scholars like bell hooks, writers like Colson Whitehead, entertainers like Dave Chapelle, artist like Kara Walker, and the vibrant new media of the blogosphere, including Jack & Jill Politics (see sidebar for other links we like). These sources provide a dynamic context for a few observations:
- Postmodern thinking means, among other things, re-evaluating the politics of race (and gender and class) representation. It means becoming aware of the hidden assumptions and obligations that limit us from expressing the full range of our social identities, however incomplete or fragmented these identities may be.
- Our understanding of blackness similarly rejects all-encompassing narratives that attempt to label the black community as a single, unchanging entity. But we also don’t want to trash the concept of community altogether. The narrator in Apex Hides the Hurt explains this ambivalence really well: “Colored, Negro, Afro-American, African American. … Every couple of years someone came up with something that got us an inch closer to the truth. Bit by bit we crept along. As if that thing we believed to be approaching actually existed.”
- Postmodern blackness also means embracing the absurdity of racial constructs through self-reflexive irony, skepticism, and irreverent humor. This doesn’t mean losing sight of the very real, very serious effects that race and racism have in our society today. But it does suggest an attentiveness to the unusual ways in which blackness is expressed through cultural arts and the media, in politics, and in our own crazy lives.
How else can we explain faux-news anchor Stephen Colbert’s hilarious celebration after Obama’s victory that “Racism is Over“? Complete with streamers, balloons, and flashing pictures of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman in party hats? Then Colbert follows this satirical bit with a surprisingly thoughtful interview with Cory Booker, the self-assured African-American mayor of Newark. As you watch, it soon become clear that while Colbert’s celebration may be a bit premature, it isn’t an impossibility.
Others may have a different view, but this is how we process postmodern blackness. For those interested in learning more, I highly recommend bell hook’s essay of the same title. Although it was published almost 20 years ago, it signals a compelling direction in black cultural studies that we are benefiting from today. I’ll conclude with this great passage:
We have too long had imposed upon us, both from the outside and the inside, a narrow constricting notion of blackness. Postmodern critiques of essentialism which challenge notions of universality and static over-determined identity within mass culture and mass consciousness can open up new possibilities for the construction of the self and the assertion of agency.
And if hooks isn’t your thing, just play the Colbert clip again and “luxuriate in America’s racial deliciousness!”