‘Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness?’ The provocateur Touré has a few ideas.
CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — A black man is guided to a table at a pub in Harvard Square. He is surrounded by white people. He sees fried chicken on the lunch menu. Does he dare order it?
Touré shrugs. “I’ll have the fried chicken,” he tells the waiter. Hold the stereotypes.
“I don’t care if anybody cares,” the single-named author, hip-hop journalist, cultural critic and provocateur says. “It’s a taste issue, and fried chicken is just good. In my life, I have rejected the white gaze. I’m freed from it, so I’m not really concerned with what people may or may not think about what I do.”
Not usually, anyway. But there is one thing, Touré says: He will not eat watermelon, anywhere, ever, and especially not in public. It’s not in his personal repertoire of “performing blackness,” which he explores in “Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? What It Means to Be Black Now,” a straw-stirring racial memoir-cum-manifesto.
“As soon as I see the red insides of a watermelon I feel ancient racist images slither into the room like a cold, sinewy, sinister breeze,” he writes. “When I was young my parents schooled me against eating watermelon in front of white people lest I confirm ancient stereotypes. I will eat fried chicken with impunity in front of anyone but because the anti-watermelon virus latched on to me early I have no taste for it.”
But go on ahead if you want to, Touré says. Even if the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson told the author that he’d never eat watermelon in public, either, it’s not a felony offense under the rules of performing blackness. After all, Touré says, those rules don’t even exist.
It’s the central point of “Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?,” in which Touré declares that being black means breaking free of “normative” black behavior. There are no limitations or boundaries, despite what the arbiters of what is and isn’t black might say.
Justice Clarence Thomas, in other words, is no less black than Jay-Z.
In promoting this concept, Touré (pronounced “tour-ay”), who will discuss the book in the District at the flagship Busboys and Poets on Wednesday and at Howard University on Thursday, finds himself right where he wants to be: at the center of yet another major conversation.
“I like to have a say in what’s going on at the national water cooler,” says the serial tweeter, who, until recently, probably was best known for asking R. Kelly whether he kept the company of teenage girls (on BET), playing poker with Jay-Z (in Rolling Stone) and using only his first name professionally.
“I wanted to say something about America,” says the 40-year-old Touré, who has heard repeatedly, from whites and blacks alike, that he talks and acts white. “Barack Obama had been elected. I needed to recalculate where we are and who we are. I saw this stuff going on, and I wanted to talk about it.”
He picks at his food.
“If there are 40 million black Americans, then there are 40 million ways to be black,” he says, repeating a favorite line from Harvard University’s Henry Louis Gates Jr. Gates is one of more than 100 African American academics, community leaders, artists and others interviewed for the book, which blends others’ perspectives with Touré’s reflections and theories on race.
“I’m telling the self-appointed identity cops, who want to say, ‘This person isn’t black enough,’ to put down their swords. Fear of post-blackness just inhibits our potential. Stop the bullying, and stop telling people they don’t walk right, talk right, think right or like the right things. It’s silly and ridiculous and pernicious.”
Not a ‘typical’ experience
Touré and his kid sister, Meika, were raised 30 minutes from Harvard, in the leafy, mostly white middle-class town of Randolph. Their father, Roy, who’d grown up hard in Brooklyn and Harlem before moving to Massachusetts, owned an accounting firm. Their mother, Pat, had aspirations of becoming a writer. They had a nice house with a white picket fence and, Touré says, an unwelcoming white neighbor who petitioned unsuccessfully to block his family from moving to the cul-de-sac.
The family also had — and has — a surname, which Touré unofficially dropped in college and has never used professionally because, he says, it was something extra, like fries that come with a hamburger. “I didn’t feel a connection to it. Touré was something that had meaning for us and had been consciously thought out. It had historical weight and resonance. The last name didn’t have that.”
His mother casually mentions the name in an interview, and Touré still uses it legally; as such, it can be found with a minor amount of Internet sleuthing. But there is no last name attached to his books or his journalism in Rolling Stone and elsewhere or his television work on CNN, MTV2, BET and, now, MSNBC and cable-music channel Fuse. So, he says, can we not include it in this story? There are more important identity issues to discuss, after all.
The [No Last Name] kids attended Milton Academy, the mostly white prep school where T.S. Eliot, James Taylor and Robert and Ted Kennedy had studied. They played tennis, dabbled with the piano and went skiing.
It was not, Touré says, “the typical black experience.”
His mother, Pat, says she took special care to keep her kids from losing touch with their racial identity and heritage. “I would read black history and black stories to them at supper time.” They belonged to Jack and Jill, the African American social club for children, and had posters “of the important black figures on our walls. I wanted to give them the black history I felt they needed, going to an all-white school.”
On the morning of his first day at Milton, she told Touré that he needed “to be twice as good as those white kids.” She admonished the children not to act out in public, saying, “Don’t confirm what those white people think.”
Still, she says, “Touré was so secure, even as a little kid, of his blackness.” Once, in third or fourth grade, she recalls, he read a Langston Hughes poem at show and tell. He was a bookworm whose parents sometimes called him “The Professor,” and he told his parents that he wanted to be the first black president — and also a lawyer, stockbroker and psychologist. His more immediate career was in child modeling, where his most notable shoot was a McDonald’s television commercial with Larry Bird, filmed in 1979 or 1980. (Bird crumpled a McChicken Sandwich wrapper and lofted it like a basketball. Touré, who wasn’t yet 10, pulled it out of the air and dunked it in the garbage.)
When he went to Emory University in Atlanta, Touré made fast friends with the white students in his dorm. Then he read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” switched his major to African American studies, started a black nationalist student newspaper, brought the incendiary rapper Chuck D to campus and, eventually, moved into the Black Student Association’s private house.
It was in the so-called Black House, he says, that after a party, in a room full of black people, that he was “loudly and angrily told by a linebacker-sized brother: ‘Shut up, Touré! You ain’t black!’ ”
The episode, which Touré writes about extensively in “Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?,” led to an epiphany, he says, about what it means to be black.
“Who gave him the right to determine what is and not blackness for me?” Touré writes. “Who made him the judge of blackness?”
The first major review of the book landed like a knife in Touré’s back this summer. It was by Randall Kennedy, a Harvard law professor and author of multiple books on race, including “Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal,” and it appeared on The Root, the black-themed news and opinion site. (The Root is published by the Slate Group, a Division of The Washington Post Co.)
“The Fallacy of Touré’s Post-Blackness Theory” was harshly critical of the book’s principal ideas and “avant-garde pretensions.” There should be an expulsion option in the black community, Kennedy said, for blacks who express racial hatred for other blacks. Clarence Thomas, for instance, should turn in his black card, Kennedy wrote. And there must be boundaries, he said, or else the notion of black community bound by shared struggle disappears.
He also dismissed Touré as “a keen student and practitioner of publicity” and a “politically liberal black guy who wants to make it in the white-dominated world of print journalism and television broadcasting without catching flak from ‘brothas’ and ‘sistahs’ because of the way he talks (preppy), because of his significant other (a woman who is not African American) and because of his attachment to ideas that he knows some blacks will disdain.”
“It was mean — really, really personal,” Touré says at lunch. He grimaces. “It upset me. But what are you going to do?”
Black writer vs. black writer
As it turns out, Touré and Kennedy are squaring off on a panel in the evening, at the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square. Has he considered punching his harshest critic? Touré laughs and shakes his head.
He has written about hip-hop for nearly two decades, interviewing most of the music’s major figures, including Tupac Shakur and Jay-Z. He famously grilled Kanye West about his $25,000 pendant, asking, “Doesn’t it bother you to sport a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus?” He has just started working on the autobiography of Queens rapper Nas. He is hip-hop to his core, but he rejects the thug ethos celebrated by one segment of the culture.
Thus, the chapter in his book titled “Keep It Real Is a Prison.” (It’s right before the chapter-long deconstruction of comedian Dave Chappelle’s late, lamented Comedy Central show, which Touré posits is the best example of post-blackness ever seen on television.)
“You know when you do a big idea book, people will be resistant,” he says, adding that “some brilliant, major-league black people” have nonetheless reviewed the book favorably, including journalist Gwen Ifill in The Post and Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson in the New York Times. “It’s challenging. I’m coming to move the furniture in your mind. But I’m sending a life jacket to those who have been attacked. I’m offering liberation. If you want to argue with me against acceptance and love, good luck with that.”
At the debate, it’s a full house. There are 238 people in the theater to hear Touré and Kennedy and the moderator, Gates, who directs the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard. The crowd is young and old and black and . . . white.
The demographics are fascinating to Touré. “I welcome white people to read it as a conversation they might not have access to, but I’m speaking to black people,” he says later. “It’s a conversation starter that is the product of a lot of research and honest conversations with black people about where and who we are.”
Onstage, the sparring begins. With Touré sitting next to two titans, it might look like the intellectual equivalent of a kid playing tennis against Djokovic and Nadal. But Touré holds serve, even winning a point or two. “I generally embrace the sort of libertarian ethos that Touré articulates,” Kennedy says. “I think you got him,” Gates says to Touré at one point.
After, the men trudge to the back of the theater and take their positions behind a table. People are lined up dozens deep to get the authors to sign their latest books. A young black woman places her copy of “Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?” in front of Touré.
“Be black however the hell you want!” he writes.