Touré on the role of race in a 'post-black' culture

International TravelElectionsTravelArts and CulturePoliticsEnoch Pratt Free Library

A man with salt-and-pepper hair stood recently in front of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, glaring at an oversized poster promoting a reading Monday night by the cultural critic Touré from his new book, "Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness?"

"Post-blackness?" muttered the African-American man, spitting out the word as though it had curdled in his mouth. "Ain't no such thing."

It wasn't at all clear whether the man on the street would be attending Touré's talk, though the author hopes he does.

That indignant response was just one example of the lively conversation that Touré generates wherever he goes, whether he's opining about parenthood, hip-hop, the presidential aspirations of Republican businessman Herman Cain, the Grammy nominations or, in his most recent book, what it's like to be a member of the black middle class in 2011.

The author makes it clear that he's using the term "post-blackness" to ask questions about racial identity, by which Touré means being rooted in the legacy of African-American history without also being constrained by it.

He's not turning his back on his heritage as a black man, and he's not suggesting that racism has disappeared from American society. Far from it. But Touré doesn't want to be told by anyone — white or black — that he is prohibited from participating in certain activities because of the color of his skin.

"I love being black, and I love the black community," Touré says.

"But I might also want to go sky diving, or go to see Baryshnikov at the ballet or go see a movie that isn't talking about blackness. I don't want to be told that I shouldn't because 'black people don't do that.'

"If sky diving will help me grow as a human being, why should I miss out it?"

The 40-year-old father of two has a restless and inquiring mind that has made him a ubiquitous force in popular culture, whether he's writing for Rolling Stone or The New York Times or commenting on MSNBC or Fuse-TV's "Hip Hop Shop."

"Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness?" includes conversations with such seminal thinkers as Henry Louis Gates, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Cornel West, along with artists ranging from Public Enemy's Chuck D to the Tony Award-winning Stew.

A review by Orlando Patterson that was published in The New York Times Book Review praised Touré's "acutely observed account," characterized by "unsparing honesty and a distinctive voice that is that is often humorous, occasionally wary and defensive, but always intensely engaging."

But Lester Spence, a professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University, is troubled that the literature of post-blackness spends too much time talking about the problems of monied black people and too little time talking about the cultural and economic restrictions placed on the have-nots.

"They're kind of wrestling with it from the wrong end," he says."There is a way to have this conversation that deals with cultural inequalities."

Perhaps that's why the observation in Touré's book that has generated the most discussion is about a behavior that seems innocuous but that cuts across all income groups.

According to the book, most black people won't eat watermelon in a mixed-race gathering. Touré won't eat it at all because for him, that fruit is contaminated with images of the antebellum South.

"Eating watermelon in public?" Jackson told Touré. "We're not that free."

Some black people also also extend the ban to fried chicken, though Touré is not among them.

"As I was unpacking this idea, I realized that many white people didn't know what I was talking about," he says. "To them, watermelon is just a refreshing fruit.

"But every black person immediately knew what I was getting at. For them, watermelon carries political and sociological resonances that are uncomfortable because they take them back to slavery in some way."

"Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness?" was released Sept. 13, and since then, the world has provided Touré with plenty of fresh material. Among other things, he's been watching the rise — and potential fall — of Republican presidential aspirant Herman Cain with horrified fascination.

"He's so intellectually inept, I feel like I'm maintaining a death watch over his campaign," Touré says. "It's gotten to the point where people are asking me if I would be available to appear on their show if he drops out of the race on this day or that."

Touré also is bewildered that Kanye West's platinum LP, "My Beautiful, Dark Twisted Fantasy," wasn't nominated for a Grammy Award for album of the year. He's trying to devise a theory that satisfactorily explains the snub but hasn't come up with one.

"I do not understand what's going on here," he says. "It was the best critically reviewed album of the year. All the major and minor critics were slobbering over it. Was it slighted by accident or sheer incompetence? I find those excuses inadequate."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

If you go

Touré will speak at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the central Enoch Pratt Free Library, 400 Cathedral St. Free. Call 410-396-5430 or go to http://www.prattlibrary.org

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