RACIAL PROVOCATEUR: Touré, the outspoken journalist and cultural critic, takes the post-racial conversation to another level with 'Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness?'.
Cultural critic and Rolling Stone contributing editor Touré is not one to shy away from breaking Black racial norms, and he does exactly that in his racially rowdy book, Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?: What It Means to Be Black Now. The title refers to the notion that in the 21st century there exists a new understanding of the Black identity. He interviewed 105 well-known Black personalities from a variety of vocations on his journey to unpack “Post-Blackness.”
Post-Blackness like most terms under the post-modernist umbrella is an attempt to redefine meaning. Touré borrowed the term from the art world where Black artists were envisioning a way to practice their craft without being pigeonholed into the genre of “Black Art.” So to define their shows and artistic pieces they constructed the term Post-Black. This term is not to be confused with the more controversial “Post-Racial,” a term that suggests race does not play a significant role in America anymore. Post-Blackness is contrarian to such a notion (“It doesn’t mean we’re over Blackness; it means we’re over our narrow understanding of what Blackness means.”)
Racially Touré believes one age has ended and another begun (“the age of Obama.”) When using this term, he is not talking politics but rather using it as a signifier of a new racial day. Obama’s racial identity is “rooted in, but not restricted by, his Blackness” as interviewee Dr. Michael Eric Dyson puts it. Obama’s refusal to engage in racial identity politics, while at the same time maintaining a strong connection to Black America, has been nothing short of a political revolution. By taking such a posture, he was able to move from fighting the power to being the power. The same could be said of the President Obama’s good friend Oprah Winfrey (“She ruffled a lot of Black feathers by turning Blackness inside out and allowing it to breathe in the white world on its own with little explanation or apology.”)
For the author, both Oprah and Obama serve as metaphors for a new generation of Blacks that refuses to be pigeonholed into a stereotypical racial Black narrative. This generation vigorously defends their rights to individualism while at the same time value the history of the collective Black experience. Concerning that experience, they refuse to be limited or totally defined by it. This is the author’s core argument (“the number of ways of being Black is infinite” and “what it means to be Black has grown so staggeringly broad, so unpredictable, so diffuse that Blackness itself is undefinable.”)
Of course the “age of Obama” and corresponding Post-Black posture doesn’t necessarily sit well with all. For instance, Dr. Cornel West and broadcasting luminary Tavis Smiley have been super critical of Post-Black posture and have publicly accused the president of ignoring issues specific to the Black community. Really the charge is Obama has not been Black enough. Anyone who has been Black for more than a few minutes knows this charge is not limited to politics. There are “racial police” in all venues enforcing all kinds of chameleon-like rules of Blackness.
One incident the author addresses happened while he was a college student at Emory University. At 2:30 a.m. he entered into a discussion with some fellow Black students concerning always being stuck with cleaning up after a party. A linebacker-sized Black man who wasn’t even in the conversation silenced the whole room by shouting angrily, “Shut up, Touré! You ain’t Black!” He talks about the embarrassment of being charged with being an Uncle Tom and reflects on the racial wrestling that followed. Touré desires this type of attitude to be abolished (“I wish for every Black American to have the freedom to be Black however he or she chooses and to banish from the collective mind the bankrupt, fraudulent concept of ‘authentic’ Blackness.”)
So how does the Post-Black dynamic affect us in Christian circles? Historically, seven major denominations comprise the traditional Black church — the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church; the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) Church; the Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church; the National Baptist Convention, USA., Incorporated (NBC); the National Baptist Convention of America, Unincorporated (NBCA); the Progressive National Baptist Convention (PNBC); and the Church of God in Christ (COGIC). Blacks have also had a significant presence in historic White denominations such as the Episcopal, Presbyterian, Congregational, United Methodist, and Roman Catholic churches. Over the last century, the primary perspectives of the Black Christian experience have arisen from those two groups (traditional Black denominations and historic White denominations) with good reason.
Today we need to acknowledge the existence of a significant Post-Black church movement. Over the last 40 years, many Blacks have come to faith through White parachurch ministries such as Navigators, InterVarsity, and the like. Many have matured in their faith within independent evangelical churches, been educated in predominately White Seminaries, and found homes in White denominations looking to become multiethnic. This group has a set of distinctives that differs from the historic Black church. Will the Post-Black Christian generation be grafted into the overall Black church experience?
I have a significant dog in this fight. Post-Blackness presents to us the idea of being rooted in, but not restricted by, Blackness. That is where I, and many Black Christians, live today. I have historic roots in the traditional Black church, but possess a Post-Black Christian identity. Which leads me to wonder, is there room for people like me in the traditional Black church? And, frankly, what does a Post-Black future signify for Christianity as a whole?
“You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” – John 12:8
ON THE ROAD: Dr. Cornel West and journalist Tavis Smiley recently concluded their 14-city "Poverty Tour" to bring attention to the plight of America's poor.
Last week media personality Tavis Smiley and his radio show sidekick, Princeton professor Cornel West, wrapped up their seven-day 14-city “Poverty Tour,” for which they caught plenty of hell. Launched to raise awareness to the plight of America’s expanding poor in this depressed economy, critics, from regular folks on social networking websites, to bloggers, to media personalities, labeled Smiley and West everything from “Obama haters” to “cry babies” to “poverty pimps” and worse. Comedian and radio show host Steve Harvey recently branded them “Uncle Toms,” on air, the ultimate diss for black people who are disloyal to their race — in this case their criticism of President Barack Obama, the nation’s first black President.
As a journalist, I’ve met both Smiley and West on occasion but don’t know either of them personally. Still, calling them “Toms” seems overboard. Both men believed their critique of the president and cause for the poor is just and in the spirit of their Christian faith. They deserve praise for using their platforms to take action. Attendees at their tour stops reportedly showed love. What concerns me as a Christian and observer is why these two intelligent brothers chose to advocate in a way they know won’t move the needle one bit for the poor. Why a model that more resembles what Glenn Beck would do than what Jesus would?
Servant Leaders or Advocate Entrepreneurs?
Smiley and West could’ve chosen the servant leader model, exemplified by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other disciples of the civil rights movement. Through nonviolent passive resistance, they raised the nation’s consciousness and got policies changed. King was unfortunately assassinated in 1968 in the midst of leading the Poor People’s Campaign calling for an economic Bill of Rights (sound familiar?) to end poverty among all Americans. There’s also Mohandas Gandhi, the Hindu philosopher who inspired King. Through nonviolence, hunger strikes, and skillfully mobilizing peasant farmers, Gandhi led India to independence from Great Britain. A trained lawyer, Gandhi eloquently confronted Britain’s most powerful, yet related equally to the poor, though, like King, he was of a higher socioeconomic class.
Jesus Christ — the ultimate divine servant leader — inspired both King and Gandhi and obviously changed the world. Servant leaders succeed because of their moral fortitude, skillful planning, and ability to inspire and empower people in concrete ways. Most importantly, they are committed to self-sacrifice.
That’s the problem with Smiley and West.
As Smiley complained of perceived slights, such as Obama being the first president to not invite him to the White House, and West whined that Obama didn’t hook him up with a ticket to his inauguration, their self-absorption became blatantly clear. Could you picture King or Gandhi voicing such drivel? If advocating nationally for the poor is truly your calling (it’s not mine) why not lead a hunger strike or a fast? How about camping out in a tent near the White House or Capitol Hill until change comes? How about organizing and mobilizing voters in the way the Tea Party advocates have done to elect politicians who would pass a poor people’s Stimulus Bill? You both evoke King’s words concerning the poor, why not his manner?
Smiley and West’s method was more like Beck, the multimillion-dollar right-wing media mogul/talk show host who fashions himself as an evangelical bullhorn for angry whites. Beck has done road shows, packed auditoriums, and even held a rally on the National Mall on the day commemorating the historic 1963 March of Washington. Beck’s is the “Entrepreneur Advocate” model, where the speaker to the crowd is the only one whose wallet gets enriched. Beck has mastered this hustle. Smiley has long been associated with it, too.
So what are Smiley and West really peddling?
Besides selling books and a Poverty Tour TV special and DVD that I suspect will be released later, I believe Smiley and West’s goal is to hustle their way into President Obama’s inner circle. The tour was part of their angling for a “come to Jesus meeting” like the “beer summit” that Henry Louis Gates Jr., West’s black contemporary at Harvard, enjoyed after his spat with a white police officer made headlines. Smiley and West would love to commune with the prez at the White House on red wine, crackers and cheese. They likely would want to broadcast the meeting/interview on Smiley’s TV show.
Don’t be shocked if it happens close to Election Day 2012.
And, in the meantime, the poor will remain among us.
The opinions expressed in this commentary belong to the writer and are not necessarily the views of UrbanFaith.com or Urban Ministries, Inc.
Representative Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) deserves the colorful language prize of the week for describing the federal debt deal that President Obama signed into law Tuesday as a “Satan sandwich.” “There is nothing inside this sandwich that the major religions of the world will say deals with protection for the poor, the widows, the children,” Cleaver told ABC News.
But a group calling itself Christians for a Sustainable Economy (CASE) sent a letter to President Obama Monday urging him not to protect programs for the poor, as Circle of Protection signatories had recommended, but instead to protect those in need from programs that it says “demean the poor, undermine their family structures and trap them in poverty, dependency and despair for generations.”
Timothy Dalrymple, managing editor of the Evangelical portal at Patheos.com and a drafter of the CASE letter, said in a phone interview today that the early CASE signatories are a primarily white, religiously diverse group that came together at a conference about environmental issues. Dalrmyple said he would welcome more ethnic diversity.
“We referenced [Jim] Wallis and the Circle of Protection because, while we agree that the budget is a moral document, we believe that many other moral imperatives are being left out of the conversation. The Circle of Protection was rightly emphasizing the moral imperative to care for the poor … but we felt they were leaving out the moral imperative against the kind of severe, chronic crippling debt that we have, and leaving out the moral imperative of wise stewardship of resources. There are numerous moral imperatives involved here,” said Dalrymple.
“We don’t feel that drawing a circle of protection around one party’s argument is the best way to go,” he said, but pointed out that there are “broad areas of agreement” between the two groups.
“We’re certainly in agreement on the importance of caring for the poor. They are willing to acknowledge the importance of getting our fiscal house in order. There are differences in emphasis, but there is also, on our part, an effort to foster a broader and more nuanced conversation over the moral imperatives at play, and a challenging of the assumption that the measure of your compassion is the amount of money you devote toward ostensibly anti-poverty programs,” said Dalrymple.
At the Washington Post On Faith blog, Lisa Miller asked a handful of Christian ministers and scholars, including CASE member Eric Teetsel, what Jesus would cut from the federal budget. “All deferred an answer. Instead, they raised the same old liberal-conservative political debate that has raged at least since the Reagan years. Left-leaning Christians insisted that the way out of the debt crisis was to raise taxes. Those on the right supported slashing entitlements,” said Miller.
In a NewsOne/BlackPlanet poll conducted Tuesday, African Americans were divided when asked if they thought President Obama gave up too much to Republicans in the deal. Fifty-one percent said no; 46 percent said yes,” News One reported.
At The Huffington Post’s Black Voices, which launched today, Peter S. Goodman revisited a conversation he had last year with an economist who told him most Americans didn’t “get screwed” in the Great Recession. In light of depressing statistics about its impact on minorities, Goodman said, “Black and Hispanic households together comprise 28 percent of the American population. In other words, great numbers of Americans have indeed gotten screwed. And anyone who missed that essentially missed what was wrong with the American economy writ large.”
As to solutions, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) is launching cross country job fairs, town hall meetings, job readiness programs, and seminars as part of its “For The People” jobs initiative resolution, News One reported. And concern about hiring discrimination against the long-term unemployed prompted Democrats in both houses of Congress to introduce legislation that would ban employment discrimination, according to Colorlines.
In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced plans to contribute $30 million of his own money to a $130 million initiative that will address the needs of the city’s minority populations. The program “would overhaul how the government interacts with a population of about 315,000 New Yorkers who are disproportionately undereducated, incarcerated and unemployed,” The New York Times reported.
In what may or may not be a pursuit of solutions, talk show host Tavis Smiley and Princeton University professor Cornel West are taking their “anti-poverty tour” to Chicago this weekend, The Chicago Tribune reported. The tour will shine “a spotlight on economic hardships in the president’s hometown” at a time when his former chief of staff and current Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration is, according to Chicago News Cooperative, shutting down its overnight emergency services shift for the homeless and laying off 24 employees in the city’s Department of Family and Support Services.
One can only speculate what the strain will be on affluent African and Hispanic Americans who are more likely to live in poor neighborhoods than low income whites, according to a new study by Brown University sociologist John Logan that was reported in The Wall Street Journal.
Well, it’s been a tumultuous couple of weeks talking about money, a subject financial adviser Dave Ramsey says the Bible mentions more than 800 times. Among those verses is Mathew 6:24: “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” As we debate these issues, perhaps we can remember too that 1 John 4:20 says we can’t love God and hate those with whom we disagree about causes and solutions to our nation’s economic problems.
We came across this interesting post by Australian activist Jarrod McKenna over at the God’s Politics blog, which is produced by our good friends at Sojourners. In light of all that’s happening in Washington this week, especially with President Obama’s health-care summit today, we thought we’d post it here in slightly edited form for your reflection.
It’s interesting to see Professor Cornel West, a well-known Obama supporter, offer this strong of a critique (in some ways, it’s an admonishment) of the President and his performance thus far.
Remakes, remixes, and reruns seem very commonplace in today’s entertainment culture. Every other film today seems to be a remake of some classic movie or TV show from earlier days. Today’s music offerings are filled with remakes and “remixes” of older songs. Many television channels find it more profitable to rebroadcast syndicated reruns than to air brand-new shows that are unproven. As Solomon opined, “There’s nothing new under the sun.”
Recently, my wife and I went to see Denzel Washington and John Travolta in the remake of The Taking of Pelham 123. It was surprisingly good. Both of us felt Travolta’s character stole the show. I am more of a movie connoisseur than my wife, but normally even I don’t expect much from remakes. Sometimes you’re just unable to shake the original from your head. Whenever I hear Mariah Carey’s remake of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There,” I can still hear Michael Jackson vividly in my mind, even though I think Mariah has an extraordinary voice.
You know, sometimes things never get old. I can watch a good movie over and over again. I can listen to an amazing song repeatedly without tiring of it. Yet some things, when they are repeated, can become quite irritating.
We recently witnessed another irritating repeat of an old storyline when Cambridge Police officers took Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. away from his home in handcuffs. It was a surreal moment. I usually see Professor Gates, director of Harvard’s W.E. B Du Bois Institute, on PBS documentaries and the covers of magazines and books. I also had the privilege of visiting the Du Bois Institute on Harvard’s campus to witness the scholarly environment of some of our great Black minds, people like Dr. Gates, Dr. Cornel West, and Dr. William Julius Wilson. Seeing Gates escorted by the police from his home is something I never imagined could happen.
The surreal moment is the simple shock and disappointment that it has happened again. It doesn’t take much imagination for Black people in general to believe the incident really happened to another prominent Black figure. Just read Ellis Cose’s seminal Rage of a Privileged Class or countless other books and articles, it likes a bad script played over and over again.
I remember in the early 1990s when I saw the Rodney King incident on video of police beating him over and over again. The relief I felt then was that it was finally captured on film. Sadly, I think many of us in the Black community rejoiced. We were now vindicated by this incident, forever caught of film, confirming our claims of mistreatment. Certainly, we would have a public outcry for justice, and citizens from around the country would demand accountability from the police for their discriminatory actions. It didn’t happen as the police were found not guilty and the country not just L.A. was outraged to acts of violence in the spring of 1992 with riots spreading all over the country from Los Angeles to Ames, Iowa, to Atlanta.
Nowadays, when a prominent Black figure like Gates is arrested, Black people from around the nation say, “We have seen this movie before. It is a bad remake.” In less than 24 hours the police drop the charges, and the city of Cambridge describe the incident as “regrettable and unfortunate.” You betcha it’s regrettable and unfortunate.
Should we look at the calendar? It is 2009. We have a Black man as President of these United States of America. Yet, the image of a Black man as criminal is still the first image that so many have when they see us. Yep, I am one of them, too. I happen to be a Black man with three Black sons.
Months ago after Barack Obama was elected president and later sworn into the highest position in the land, the media ran with the notion that we are now living in a post-racial world. Race no longer has the firm grip it had for years in our country.
Who believed that? Oh, you can find some conservatives like Shelby Steele, or James Harris, the conservative radio host notorious for begging Senator McCain to aggressively go after Obama during the election. In general, most Black people don’t believe this. The statistics don’t support it. As bad as 10 percent unemployment is for our nation, the Black community would welcome 10 percent unemployment. Most of us, believe there is much work yet ahead of us before we arrive to a post racial era. A lot of the work lies within the Black community as much as externally.
Oh, I can hear the debate going back and forth about Prof. Gates’s interaction with the policeman allegedly escalating the incident to his own shame. Another critique will be that Gates wanted this outcome to draw attention to his books and documentaries on race in America. I wonder if anyone will ask why the police did not recognize who Prof. Gates is? Why do we have countless incidents of prominent Black men who have attained great success and position being perceived by the public as aberrant or exceptions to the rule, specifically by our police? This perception follows Black males from the fourth grade to the grave. I say fourth grade because that’s around the time when we are no longer cute and cuddly, we begin to display the resemblance of the adult version of ourselves. It doesn’t matter if they come from a two-parent home, teach at Harvard, or own a basketball team. This country, no matter what the ethnicity or race, continues to perceive Black men first as potential criminals. Unfortunately, many Black people hold this same perception.
I believe a more important critique about the incident is how Prof. Gates responded to the police. Evident at least to me is that his current status and notoriety has allowed him to begin to believe he is exceptional. The truth is, no Black man I know would risk engaging the police, in their home or anyplace else, to the level Prof. Gates did for fear of the possible outcome. I have taught my sons, and they have seen, how a Black man should relate to the police nonverbally and verbally, so as to avoid the results Prof. Gates got or an even worse consequence.
Isn’t it interesting that the incident of Oklahoma troopers going scuffling with a Black paramedic after stopping an ambulance en route to take a patient to the hospital did not get the national attention as Prof. Gates? This incident happened in late May. Wouldn’t it be interesting to document the number of times the police have stopped African American men who have attained middle-class status from those in graduate school to professionals? This data will be more enlightening than the current misdirected conversation about Prof. Gates and the Cambridge police versus the broader issue of how Black and Latino men are treated by the police.
If Henry Louis Gates does pursue a documentary on racial profiling, I hope he presents the historical data that displays this awful stereotype as an age-old dilemma that has evolved through the generations in our country, influencing the images Black people have themselves. It doesn’t seem to get old as fodder for our media. It’s just a new remix, with simple tweaks and nuances that make it current. But in the end, it’s an old song, old episode, and old movie. Many of us can write the script ourselves. But it continues to be produced. Sadly, we have to keep watching.