I am just old enough to remember when having someone call you black, rather than Negro, was considered a serious slur. Still, when it did occur, my parents taught me, even then, to say “thank you” in response. This turned out to be a highly effective way to disarm the insult and the insulter. In this way, I learned the power of not letting others decide how I would be defined. I did not need James Brown to tell me to be black and proud. Decades later, Americans are still struggling with racial definitions. Is the president black or biracial? Are we Latino or Hispanic? Is the n-word an insult or an affectionate term? What does it mean to be authentically black? And does any of that matter anymore? Didn’t the 2008 election signal that the country that elected its first black president is now post-racial?
Two new books take radically different approaches to these questions of race introspection — one academic, the other anecdotal. Both are mature and serious works that seek to get us past our laziest assumptions about race. Each managed to expand my notion of what it means to be black in America, and why it matters.
The more readable and entertaining of the two is pop-culture journalist Touré’s “Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?” With liberal doses of personal experience, Tourédemolishes the notion that there is only one way to be racially authentic.
He is, after all, a black man who went to prep school, jumps out of planes, interviews rock stars, raises biracial children and pretty much sets out to explode a new black-male stereotype every day. He is well aware of what it means to see someone cross the street as he approaches after sunset, but he resists editors at music magazines who believe he is equipped only to write about rap. “Why’s Blackness validated by a trip to jail,” he writes, “and challenged by a stint at Yale?”
Tourévery specifically rejects the notion that America is now post-racial. Instead he makes an argument for what he calls post-blackness. America is not (and should not necessarily be) past race, he writes. But black people need to expand their notion of what it means to be black to include a new generation that embraces the “racial ambidexterity” defined by entertainers like Dave Chappelle and politicians like President Obama.
“To me it seemed in my generation racial matters were going to be far more nuanced and slippery than they’d been for my parents,” he writes. “For me racism was not always a matter of clearly defined lambs and wolves, but was more of a double-sided gun.”
Relying on more than 100 interviews with authors, artists, journalists and academics, Touréis funny, hip and current — imagining at one point what would happen to an angry black man who banged his wingtip shoe on an Oval Office desk. Wonder whom he means?
But he skips lightly over the unique experiences of African American women. For that, it’s better to turn to “Sister Citizen,” in which Melissa V. Harris-Perry, a political science professor at Tulane University, applies a social scientist’s rigor, complete with focus groups and regression analysis.
Escaping the bounds of false definition, she writes, is a tougher task for black women than for men. Throughout history, they have often been shoehorned into three constraining stereotypes: the nurturing mammy, the lascivious Jezebel and the stiff-necked, unyielding matriarch. Each of these archetypes, she argues, imposes a crazy quilt of limitation on anyone striving to decide for herself who she is. “Strong is the default category for describing black women,” she writes. “But the myth leaves them sicker, less satisfied and more burdened than any other group.”
Harris-Perry’s central premise is that African American women are “misrecognized,” not only by society but often by themselves. This misrecognition morphs into stunted expectation that in turn breeds shame and racism. “Racism is the act of shaming others based on their identity,” she writes. “Blackness in America is marked by shame. . . . Shame makes us view our very selves as malignant. But societies also define entire groups as malignant. Historically the United States has done that with African Americans.” Escaping that shame, she concludes, motivates black women’s political involvement.
That involvement takes many shapes. Some women run for office, but many more affect their communities through involvement in social clubs, sororities and even politically active book clubs. Drawing a connecting line from the literary contributions of Zora Neale Hurston and Ntozake Shange through the contemporary horrors of Hurricane Katrina and the Duke lacrosse scandal, she argues that black women are often the most vulnerable players in any set piece.
But Harris-Perry does not hold white people solely responsible. Like Touré’s, her work is introspective. She directs pointed critiques at black churches and at the civil rights movement, which relied on women to organize and execute, but seldom welcomed them to the stage. “Black liberation theology’s silence on gender is a stunning omission made possible by the long history of gender inequality in Christian churches of all racial compositions,” she writes. “Women were expected to sit in the pews, receiving messages from men in the pulpit.”
Along the way, Harris-Perry challenges the heroic narratives we normally embrace, noting that acknowledgment of women’s contributions to the civil rights movement has been limited: “For every Harriet Tubman there are hundreds of thousands of black women who died as slaves. For every Sojourner Truth there are hundreds of thousands who were never able to speak publicly about their experiences.”
Both books cover an important new front in America’s continuing battles over black and white. It turns out there are dozens of shades of gray. That gray is rooted in misunderstanding, misapprehension and misrecognition, too. Each of these provides unique challenges, and neither Tourénor Harris-Perry seems particularly convinced in the end that Americans are prepared to tackle these redefinitions.
I can’t say I am, either. But at least now I know what my parents were up to when they told me to thank the insulters. Getting to define oneself can be the ultimate victory. But to fully appreciate that win, we first have to acknowledge the limitations we have placed on ourselves.
WHO’S AFRAID OF POST-BLACKNESS?
What It Means to Be Black Now
Free Press. 251 pp. $25
Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America
By Melissa V. Harris-Perry
Yale Univ. 378 pp. $28