21 April 2010

Working Notes on Post-Soul: A Nonsensical Purge

The dissertation is a late 20th century/contemporary project.  I use the myth (read: common notions/imaganings) of California and California-invested/centered/curious novels to delineate the evolution of blackness at the end of last century.  I'm (still/currently) working on a chapter anchored by Paul Beatty's The White Boy Shuffle, a satiric novel about a Los Angeles, CA "street" poet and basketball star named Gunnar Kaufman.  (Yes, Gunnar as in Myrdal and Kaufman as in Bob.)  On one hand, I'm glad to do the work.  The last chapter was on Danzy Senna and multiraciality, and I was just tired of the mixed-race discourse.  It was frustrating for someone as committed to blackness--as an identity, as a symbol of working to (potentially) undermine white supremacy, capitalism, etc.--as I am to have to become a mini-expert an implicitly anti-black, anxiety laden position. 

With The White Boy Shuffle specifically, and my research interests in general, I have to become versed in the post-soul. This stuff is frustrating, but for a different set of reasons.  As a historical/political marker, post-soul essentially describes the period after the civil rights and black power movements, a moment when America was mourning the death of Jim Crow and getting acclimated with its position in the neo-globalization process (because the American project in and of itself was the globalization without the neo--the worldly nature of middle passages and such).  Clearly, blacks born gooey from the afterbirth of these large societal changes are considered the post-soul generation.  In my diss, I describe the post-soul generation as "blacks who were infants during the immediate aftermath of the civil rights movement, received a can of Afro Sheen and ticket for the Soul Train for their thirteenth birthdays, emerged from adolescence the same time disco died, and began navigating their way through adulthood somewhere in between crack and Cosby."  (The definition may be a little sloppy, but I think it's sort of funny.  Besides, it's a draft.  And it's due in a month.)    This generation, if you will, inherited an ostensibly more integrated America--both (perhaps) in their own neighborhoods, on their televisions and movie screens (hello, Eddie Murphy)--and witnessed not only the commodification of black culture, but its movement from the fringe to the center of American pop life.  This post-soul generation's art articulates and reflects being raised in a (deliberately) integrated society   There's more to it than this, but I think that's good for now.

Ok, fine.

The academic response to the art this generation produces is particularly interested in articulating (among other things): 1. how this art expresses (an ironic and/or suspicious) distance from tropes of "authentic" blackness allegedly established during previous movements; 2. that post-soul expresses metanarratives of blackness; 3. that even though these artists may be concerned with blackness, they don't want to be solely defined by blackness; 4. that these artists are "cultural mulattos" (See: Ellis, Trey; Tate, Greg; et. al.) insofar as their art reflects influences from sources beyond other black people and/or black culture (because, I suppose, society has become legally, deliberately integrated).   

This last point gives me pause.   What makes this generation special, at least as I understand it, is the implicit assumption that its aesthetic was/is a kind of reaction formation from civil rights and black power movements, and that it's more diverse than previous movements.  In order to accept post-soul as a sufficient descriptor, one agrees that post-soul's predecessors narrowed what was acceptable blackness, whether it was a politics of respectability and moral suasion (CRM) or of Afrocentricity and political confrontation (BPM), and that art reflected this narrowing.  Consequently, these two movements birthed a bastard child hell-bent on becoming (black) James Deans, rebellious teenagers (with or without a cause, who cares?  We're post, after all), who didn't give a flying fuck about respectability or Afros as the follicle manifestation of political dissent.  As a result, the post-soul landscape is that of diversified artistic output, differently, or not at all concerned with being black in ways that their parents and grandparents might have been.  

Now, I'm not doubting the effect the fight for equality, in all of its manifestations, had on black art.  What I am questioning, however, is the very idea that 1. this recent generation of black writers, musicians, etc. are more aware of and greatly influenced by cultural product/producers outside of the realm of blackness, and that 2. earlier black art, because of larger--Negroes need to come up by convincing others of our humanity, etc.--ideological goals wasn't very rich or diverse. To the former point, one need only to turn to literature, Ellison's "The World and the Jug," for example, where he goes in on Irving Howe for assuming that segregation meant that black people had no idea what white people were up to.  Ellison, by talking about the influence the likes of Faulkner and Hemingway had on him, delineates a "cultural mulatto-ness" that is inherent to American racial blackness, not something endemic to the post-soul generation.  Toni Morrison, who went to Howard University, wrote her thesis on Faulkner and Va. Woolf.   I can think of a slew of black women writers (Hurston, Gayle Jones, Audre Lorde) who were anything but "respectable" in their work.  Penis biting is, in the delineation of the pre-post-soul narrative, never, ever okay.

My point, and I think I have one, is that post-soul as a marker can be useful, but I don't think it's helpful to accept the narrative that what makes post-soul post-soul is the diversity of influences (especially since my television has enough coonery to give Al Jolson and Gosden and Correll pause), its ruminations on the state of blackness meta or otherwise, or its critique of movements for racial equality.  I think those are issues black folks have been deliberating on since they arrived on these shores, and to argue that post-soul is a response to previous aesthetics invested in (forwarding) constricted, traditional tropes of blackness denies the radical and subversive tradition that, however quiet it may have been, has always existed.  There's nothing convincing about saying, "Look! Black people play rock 'n' roll!" when black people invented rock 'n' roll.   Maybe the better response would be, "Look! Black people are playing rock 'n' roll, and that's an incredibly different image from the one mass culture presents that many, including blacks, accept as true."  The nuance makes all the difference.

I'm not sure if any of this makes sense, but thanks for letting me purge(, Gayle). I think I can read again.


professorjawn said...

this is a great diss purge! i'm wondering if you need to necesarily argue that pre-Soul black cultural production was ideologically narrow in order to make your point. Several folks, (Roderick Ferguson I've read most recently) upend this conception of a 'narrow' sense of blackness before CRM & BPM... anyhoo, have fun!

lex said...

yes!!! passing this on to Fred. Also I may be reading this differently than professorjawn...but I don't see you arguing that black cultural production was ever ideologically narrow.

and though i acknowledge Soul as a particular movement in Black cultural production...i don't know if I would characterize any Black cultural production as pre-Soul.

Seems like your question is why the hell anyone would want to disavow their soul to begin with. (A Faustian deal with the devilishness of capitalism?)

lex said...

From Fred Moten:
hey! i just wanted to say amen to lex and to summer of sam. i'm not quite as sure about what post-soul discourse has to offer once it's slanderous description of black discourse prior to itself as monolithic is debunked. but i'm willing to go along with you on that just because your debunking is so good.

summer of sam said...

@professorjawn: thanks. the purge has helped. and thanks for the ferguson recommencation.

@apg: that pre-soul thing was a typo. it was supposed to be pre-post-soul. fixed. and i'm trying not to freak out about the fact that you sent this to fred moten, but i'm working through it. thank you.

studpoet said...


I would LOVE to read the chapter on multiraciality and Danzy Senna.

As far as your purge, I'm definitely going to come back to this to digest. (eww now that sounded a bit gross) But you get what I'm saying!

AC said...

of course! this is great...and your work converges with Fred's in such productive ways...!

Anonymous said...

This generation,RS Money if you will, inherited an ostensibly more integrated America--both (perhaps) in their own neighborhoods, on their televisions and movie screens (hello, Eddie Murphy)--and witnessed not only the commodification of black culture, but its movement from the Guild wars 2 Goldfringe to the center of American pop life

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