“When you remove the burden of representation, as an artist you get wings”: Touré on post-blackness

Cultural critic Touré, author of Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?, has a fascinating conversation with Soundcheck host John Schaefer about the increasingly fluid relationship between identity and race (something I occasionally try to get at in my own series of posts on identity beyond ethnicity). I was particularly struck by his critique of the notion of authenticity (“Keep It Real Is a Prison” is a chapter title from his book), and by how he strategizes to get around others’ preconceptions:

I’ve had moments […] where people are coming at me saying things that are racist: “You can’t do such-and-such story because you’re black.” Not even in so many words, but I know what they’re saying and they know what they’re saying. And if I jump up and say, “Hey, that’s racist, I’m going to overturn your table now,” well, that’s fantastic, but you’ll never work at that magazine or that television station again. But if you find a more subtle way of coming around the flank and attacking them from the back, then you can get in and you can succeed, and you can get to do the story and prove that you are greater than their expectations.

Sound advice.

The whole interview is very much worth a listen. Touré and Schaefer discuss Henry Louis Gates’ assertion that “if there are forty million black Americans, then there are forty million ways to be black”; the evolution of hip-hop — and the expansion of its emotional palette — as a reflection of the evolution of cultural and racial identity; the provocative shape-shifting of the Dave Chappelle Show (with excerpts from the hilarious racial draft skit); the “culture-jamming” of artists like Kehinde Wiley and musicians like Santogold/Santigold; and more.

As I’ve written before, rejecting the expectation of being a spokesman for one’s tribe is liberating; in Touré’s words, “When you remove the burden of representation, as an artist you get wings.” He calls for “stretching the potential of identity to infinity,” and argues that “anybody can perform blackness any way they want to.” I do wonder how far he’s willing to take that notion; if we are to reject imposed identities and instead choose for ourselves who we are, does that mean that non-blacks can perform blackness too? Schaefer, for example, brings up the early-80s hip-hop producers Double Dee and Steinski, apparently assumed to be “kids from the South Bronx” until they turned out to be “older white guys who worked on Madison Avenue.” And I’m reminded of Tom Piazza’s defense of Gillian Welch and her right to play Appalachian music without being from the region herself: “the question is whether it works, whether it rings true, not whether you have an inherited visa to enter that territory.”

It’s an interesting question; Touré is exploring the notion of being rooted in but not constrained by blackness — a notion I’m very much in favor of, for all ethnicities — but if, as he suggests, we expand “the potential of identity to infinity,” is such an identity meaningful at all? (Chappelle’s skit really explodes that idea very subversively, I think.) In a promotional video for his book, Touré explains how blacks can shift between different “dimensions of blackness” depending on what the situation calls for, but perhaps he’s not pushing it far enough. If we are the ones who choose how to define ourselves, and how to carry ourselves in accordance with our definitions — if, in other words, we choose the meaning of who we are — then perhaps the meaning of blackness, or Asianness, or Mexicanness, or whatever, is (refreshingly? gloriously?) arbitrary. If something can mean whatever we want it to mean, maybe it inherently means nothing at all. And maybe that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Maybe all we are, in the end, is human.

(Image: “Equestrian Portrait of King Philip II (Michael Jackson)” by Kehinde Wiley)

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