An Interview with Toure
Cultural critic Tourè, a contributor to multiple television news shows and host of The Hiphop Shop and On the Record (Fuse TV), has explored the issues of race and identity most notably through his novel Soul City and his essay collection Never Drank the Kool-Aid. His latest book is his most ambitious, and most controversial, to date: Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness?: What It Means to Be Black Now. In the age of Obama, Tourè argues, there is a need for African Americans to be proud of their Blackness without being constrained by charges of "selling out" or somehow betraying what it means to be Black. Instead, African Americans should embrace an expanded definition of Blackness, one that incorporates the increasingly diverse Black experience in America. But this point of view is not without its critics. In the interview below, Tourè discusses the varied reactions to his thesis with Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: You argue that post-blackness is much more valuable, and much more realistic, than post-racialism. Though, is it possible to celebrate all of our unique cultural attributes—food, music, sense of solidarity and shared history, etc.—while simultaneously subordinating our sense of group primacy? This strikes me as a difficult line to tread.
Tourè: Post-racialism does not exist. It's a chimera. So yes—post-Blackness is more realistic than post-racialism because post-racialism is non-existent. Post-racialism suggests race does not matter anymore. This is obviously false. Post-Blackness is real. It alludes to the complexity of modern Black identity and the fact that Black people can and should define what Blackness means for themselves rather than having the confines of their identity dictated to them. It means being rooted in but not constrained by Blackness, and it means understanding Blackness is so varied and complex that acting as if there's some monolithicity is foolhardy. I don't see a contradiction in being part of a group and loving its traditions and tropes and being influenced by all that and yet also demanding the freedom to shape your identity for yourself. I can love Blackness and also figure out for myself what it means and how I want to embody it. This is merely the identity freedom that all people should have.
HLG: If the "identity options are infinite," as you described post-Blackness to MediaBistro reporter Donya Blaze, then anything can be "black" (or for that matter, white) if it is so claimed. Doesn't that undermine, or at least dilute, any sense of group identification? Why bother claiming something as "black" or "white" instead of just, say, American?
T: I think the Black experience in America has become so broad and varied that we're not really linked by anything but the common experience of racism, and whatever the fruits of the collective memory of Black history are, and the broad set of biological characteristics that read as Black.
I asked many of the 105 people I interviewed for my book, what is the center of Blackness? Is there a centrifugal force? Is there some commonality linking us all? No one could come up with any sort of answer. That was one of the few questions that just fell flat. No one could suggest anything. If there was honestly something then they'd all produce the same answer but instead they were befuddled to produce anything. So in my research I struggled to find anything contemporary that links all Black Americans and is also unique to Black Americans except for the common experience of racism and having the biological characteristics associated with Blackness and our relationship with our history. We identify with each other as a group, when I see another Black person I feel a commonality with them, I feel a kinship, but I can't honestly say I know anything about them except that I know they, too, have experienced racism.
I love considering myself Black and being linked to Black American history. There is great joy and pride and active kinship in being Black. So that's why I continue to support and see the group identification but I also want the freedom to determine how I'm going to define what that means, and everyone deserves that.
The American part turns it into a whole other question. One part of why Blackness means so much to Black Americans is because we struggle with fully identifying with America because of the atrocities that the country has visited on us in the past and continues to dole out now. We feel an unrestricted love for the place where we're from, Brooklyn, Atlanta, Detroit, etc., but we struggle with fully embracing America. When Obama was elected many people told me they experienced it as a homecoming. As if they felt fully embraced by America for the first time. Many others did not say that and I wonder if the reception Obama's had has changed the minds of those who finally felt welcome. So the Black American relationship to America is deeply fraught and conflicted and we rightly and understandably struggle with embracing America because we don't feel embraced and respected and valued by America. But we know Blackness loves us.
HLG: You take strong issue with the notion that "blackness" is directly proportional to one's connection with "the hood." How did this idea come to pass?
T: I've always seen and felt the identity bullying within the Black community comes with a class component. Whether it's subtle or overt, whoever's from the rougher socioeconomic background seems to feel greater right to define what is and is not Blackness. I reject this concept. Middle-class or upper-class visions of and performance of Blackness are just as legitimate as working class visions of it. People seem to act as though Blackness is fragile and perishable like milk and without constant exposure to the hood it would spoil like milk outside of the refrigerator for too long. Hogwash.
HLG: In your new book, Aaron McGruder says that the most racist thing that ever happened to him was the "opportunity that never manifested and I'll never know...was even possible." McGruder, of course, is extremely successful, commercially and artistically. If someone of his accomplishments can feel this way, would it not seem that any hope of a post-racial/post-black/post-anything society is dishearteningly out of reach?
T: As previously noted, post-racial does not exist and is not synonymous with post-Black so they shouldn't be smushed together like that. Post-Blackness deals with the complexity of being Black today and embraces the challenge of dealing with racism in a white supremacist society. Aaron's answer was common: many people said the most racist thing that had ever happened to them was something unknowable. When you accept that you realize that thinking status somehow insulates you from racism is silly. Elizabeth Alexander spoke about the consistent underestimation of Black intelligence. She knows many of the people she encounters are underestimating her intellectually just because she's Black. Many people also spoke about the vicarious experience of racism where something doesn't happen directly to you but you understand that it could have and you know that a message is being sent as to how little it still means to be Black in this country and you understand that that message relates to you. So in many ways class and status don't insulate you from racism at all. Class may insulate you from certain forms of racism but you'll encounter others.
But what post-Blackness means is a rejection of both the white gaze and the Black gaze. There's a certain level of maturity reached when you no longer shape your behavior based on what white people think and a greater level of maturity when you stop shaping your behavior around what Black people think, around Black normative behavior. Then you're dealing with the maximum freedoms offered by post-Blackness. I'm going to live this life how I see fit without anyone else telling me how I should be or think because I'm Black. You are your only judge. Are some/many whites (and Blacks) not ready for that? Surely. But I already rejected the white gaze so I'm not sitting around worrying that it's unusual for white people that I love Nabokov and Milan and yoga. They may not be ready for post-Blackness but I don't care. There's a moment that illustrates some of this on the NBC show 30 Rock which has some really nuanced racialized moments. On one episode the big boss, Alec Baldwin's Jack Donaghy, asked Grizz and Dot-Com, the two members of the entourage of Tracy Jordan, played by Tracy Morgan, to pretend to be doormen at a faux club to set a trap for someone. Because they're linebacker-sized Black men, in Donaghy's mind this makes sense: anyone would immediately believe them as doormen. When Donaghy thanks them, one of them says "I can't wait for the day when you ask us to pretend to be scientists." Devastating comedy because this man is a true renaissance man who's seen reading Jane Eyre in another episode and perhaps has a deep and genuine interest in science and/or other fields that Jack Donaghy would not expect him to be interested in. Still, he knows the world looks and sees and expects something else. But he's not mad at Donaghy, he just shrugs and continues pursuing his passions because that's what he loves. He's a great example: even if they're not ready for the post-Black identity complexity, we should still live our lives however we want.
HLG: One of Randall Kennedy's criticisms of your book in his review in The Root is that you insist that you are not an "oreo"—an inauthentic black person. But this implies that there is such a person (or group of people) out there, which appears to contradict some of your claims that "blackness is not a club you can be expelled from." With that in mind, what makes someone an inauthentic black person?
T: Nothing makes someone inauthentic. All forms of performing Blackness are authentic and legitimate. If there are 40 million Black people then there are 40 million ways to be Black. My book is, I hope, a life vest for those who've felt cast aside and made to feel they are not Black. I hope it helps them to feel that all expressions of Blackness are legitimate and no one has the right to make them feel inauthentic. The typical evidence for this charge is rather flimsy: the way one talks or who one dates or marries or the clothes one wears or pursuing advanced education, really silly stuff to call felonies. I give Professor Kennedy credit for coming up with an example of moments when there is the real possibility of traitorous behavior: attempting to abandon the Montgomery Bus Boycott. To that I'd add undermining the Black Panthers or Malcolm X or Dr King on behalf of the CIA or somesuch. Ok, now we're dealing with real treasonous behavior that's seriously damaging to Black people. Should we have a mechanism for dealing with those who stray from and damage the community in those situations? (And what would that be? Surely, shaming is not enough but what power do we have to do more than that? And who is the governing body that would lead these decisions?) But let's back up for a moment. Professor Kennedy's example is from the 60s when we were actively at war trying to acquire basic civil rights and human rights. So was mine. Those were different times. The battle for basic civil and human rights is over. Today's battles are different. Are there organizations or issues today that are equivalent to those 60s organizations and issues? I'd say no. I asked Professor Kennedy what modern issue would deserve that same sort of unified approach, that would have a clear benefit for all Black people? He had no answer. What would constitute treason within modern America equivalent to not participating in the Montgomery Bus Boycott or infiltrating the Black Panthers or helping to assassinate Malcolm X? There's nothing that all Black people would agree we need to overturn or fight that would provide a clear benefit to all Black people such that it would merit the moral force of deserving to have total unity.
HLG: Another criticism is that the ideas in your book could somehow undermine the communal efforts of blacks to stand against racial discrimination and other injustices. Without some definition of blackness, imperfect as one may be, it could be difficult to bring people together for something similar to the Montgomery bus boycott. How would you respond to this?
T: Today's issues are different than the issues of the 60s and thus require different tactics. Today's issues are too subtle and nuanced for marches and the other tactics that worked well in the 60s. How do you march or sit-in against a glass ceiling or stereotype threat or microaggressions or redlining or other institutionalized forms of racism?
But when you say "the ideas in my book" you act as though I'm proposing something that doesn't already exist. I'm a reporter here. I'm a camera.