Leaving "Black" Behind 

Ytasha Womack argues that African-American identity contains multitudes

Have black folks left "blackness" behind? Local writer (and sometime Reader contributor) Ytasha L. Womack thinks so. In her new book, Post Black: How A New Generation Is Redefining African American Identity, she makes the case that the old ways of imagining African-Americans fail to encompass the dazzling diversity that now characterizes the community.

"There has always been diversity in the African-American community," Womack told me the other day. "But now, because of so many hard struggles, we have so much more opportunity. The number of college graduates is significantly larger than ever before, African and Caribbean immigration has increased, there's more interracial coupling. And these are just some of the reasons for a postblack reality."

As she phrases it in the book's introduction, "Simply put, things have changed." Anyone who knows who the president is knows that, but "the irons were in the fire for over a decade," she writes. "There are new dynamics redefining African American life." She explores these in a mix of personal anecdotes; wide-ranging conversations with artists, entrepreneurs, activists, and scholars; and reporting on cultural and socioeconomic trends.

Womack makes no attempt to define a new black identity. Rather, she observes that blacks untethered from the traditional moorings of church and protest are constructing too many identities to count. While black politicians and other leaders remain heavily invested in the grievance-based issues that define the so-called black agenda, she says, a new generation has moved on. So she's talking to black Buddhists and black jewelers and black swimwear designers. She wrote the book, she says, because "there's very little understanding of who we are."

If the title suggests another premature anatomy of racism's demise, her argument is far from that. Even so, she's already been taken to task by some critics and activists—and even, she says, by some friends—for attending to new possibilities at the expense of old hurts. "If you focus too much on this growing diversity, some will accuse you of downplaying some of our past and present challenges," she told me. "And I understand that the challenges are serious. Nevertheless, it's important also that we talk about these different dynamics."

A Chicago native and Whitney Young alum with a master's in media management, Womack is in her early 30s. She's worked as a staff writer for the Chicago Defender, contributed prominently as a freelancer to national publications like Vibe, Essence, and Ebony, served as an editor-at-large of Upscale magazine, and produced and written two movies: a 2001 documentary, Tupac Shakur: Before I Wake; and Love Shorts, which screened at Chicago's Black Harvest Film Festival in 2004. She directed The Engagement: My Phamily BBQ 2, a 2006 romantic comedy about an interracial relationship. And she and Kenji Jaspers had edited Beats Rhymes & Life: What We Love and Hate About Hip-Hop, a 2007 collection of essays featuring contributions from scholars and poets as well as artists like Mos Def, Ludacris, Nelly, and Common. Not surprisingly, her new book tells us that entrepreneurial spirit is a key feature of postblack reality.

My only serious criticism of Post Black is that it overstates the novelty of the postblack perspectives of generations X and Y. Her line between those cohorts and the ones that came before, particularly the baby boomers, is drawn a bit too sharply.

Though she doesn't mention it, Albert Murray foreshadowed her argument in 1970's The Omni-Americans: Black Experience and American Culture. Before that, in the 60s, Jimi Hendrix ignored aesthetic boundaries between white and black music. Even the Black Panther Party was postblack, in the sense that it veered off the beaten path of traditional black protest and took guidance from Marxism and Maoism. And long before any of that, Paul Robeson realized a truly postblack career: college valedictorian, opera singer, classical actor, Soviet apologist.

Even I, in the 60s, dug Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and Cream, though irate brothers tried to explain to me that "black folks just don't listen to that wild shit." It turns out I was pre-postblack.   

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