Why Postmodern Blackness?


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.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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!”

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10 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Cat on November 25, 2008 at 9:29 AM

    What an eloquent and awesome post! Reading this had me thinking about a recent book on “black humor” called Laughing Fit To Kill by Glenda Carpio (both Kara Walker and Dave Chappelle are in there). I would definitely recommend it.


  2. Thanks for the book recommendation, Cat. I’ve added it to my list!


  3. Hey Claudia, Thanks for supporting my new site. I’m so happy to find your blog-love it!

    Yes, we will be chatting about the fact that black writers sometimes do write books that have nothing to do with race. Are they then not “black books?” Whew, lots of questions! We should talk about it.

    Also, I’m open [read: hoping for] guest bloggers. You know I haven’t read every book and I sure don’t know about every writer. Nor am I an expert on black literature. So if you ever feel the urge….


  4. Posted by James on November 29, 2008 at 3:29 PM

    That was a really nice, well-thought out blog.


  5. Posted by jo on December 1, 2008 at 7:03 PM

    wow. glad i found you guys. this is going to do all my teaching for me! :)


  6. Love this post! Especially since I’m on sabbatical this semester and am writing about this very topic.

    I saw from your profile that you are in SC, too. I’m in Charleston.


  7. wonderful!
    i found your site via twitter and am glad i did.


    • Hi becca, I just realized that I didn’t thank you for stopping by! I love your avatar – from Daria, if I’m not mistaken? And I’ve added Black Superheroines and Anti-Social Socialite to our blogroll. I had been playing around with ideas on a post about Amy from Jimmy Corrigan for some time now; maybe I can talk you into a crosspost? :)


  8. Posted by Marlin on August 10, 2009 at 11:49 AM

    Hey, folks,

    I think it was W.E.B Dubois that said, “It’s all been said, and it’s all been heard.”

    I’m encouraged by Black folks trying to “get closer to the truth”, but don’t think we should get too far from the plain truth of human evolution, the law of conquest, and the cold, wet slog of struggle that is being on the outside of “progress”.

    I’d be interested in hearing you all’s response to another site, RunAwaySlave http://runawayslave-runawayslave.blogspot.com/2008/02/thinking-about-resistance.html.)

    Not many articles, but surely this person is pushing us to the limits of congered truths.
    Ok, keep up the good work.


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