Who’s Afraid of Touré?
What does it mean to be black in an era that has brought us both the presidency of Barack Obama and the tragedy of Trayvon Martin? At a time when the possibilities for blacks have never seemed greater, while the prison population has never been darker? Touré’s Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?: What It Means to Be Black Now is an attempt to address these questions, and if his book feels a tad disjointed, his answers at times contradictory, it’s less a reflection of his approach than of the nature of the subject matter. Touré is just trying to stay on top of this Taurus, not tell it where to go.
“Post-black,” here, means neither nonblack nor post-racial. Instead, it represents a decision to acknowledge the burdens of being black while refusing to add to those burdens by placing limits on ourselves. Post-blackness means that instead of disdaining the fencing team as the kind of group white boys join, you pick up a sword, discover you’re good with it, and show the world what you can do. Post-blackness means that you don’t revoke a person’s membership in the black race because of his or her proper speech or white spouse. It means that there are as many ways to be black, to celebrate the culture, as there are black people.
Having ably defined post-blackness, Touré proceeds not only to shift gears, slipping back into plain old blackness, but to forget what he has already written. After agreeing with one of the 105 prominent blacks he interviewed that the term “oreo” should be abolished, he carefully assures us in a later chapter that during his freshman year of college, “I was no oreo, I got along with my Black classmates,” even if he “spent way more time with my white friends.” When he refers to the “social mistakes” he made as a freshman, it’s not clear whether or not he is being ironic, but my sinking feeling is that the answer is no.
The part of the book I personally found the most strange was the chapter “The Most Racist Thing That Ever Happened . . .” Airing his own feelings, sharing the thoughts of his interviewees, he essentially equates contemporary blackness with a state of perpetual self-consciousness, fear, and suspicion, with being stuck in the Harrison Ford/David Janssen role in a version of The Fugitive that has no ending. From wondering what plum job racism may have cost you without your knowledge, to worrying that you’ll confirm stereotypes if you eat fried chicken or watermelon in front of white people, blackness is presented here as one blood-pressure-raising moment after another, from the time of waking until your head hits the pillow. I read this chapter with rising discomfort, feeling as if I were having dinner with someone who kept turning to address a third person I couldn’t see. I know, everyone knows, that racism has not gone away. Like every black person, I think about it; sometimes I think about it a lot. Does the subject make me angry? Damn right it does. But it is not the center of my life, which means, to my mind, that it has not defeated me. So who is the fool — me, or my dinner companion?
That is not a rhetorical question; I honestly wondered what the answer was, until I had an epiphany. Touré writes that when he was a boy in just about the only black family in his neighborhood, his parents constantly warned him against confirming white people’s worst ideas about blacks. My parents, in my all-black neighborhood, did nothing of the kind. I was not, in other words, mentally hampered from the word “go,” and I realize that I have one more thing to thank my late parents for. I can’t say I haven’t run into problems as a black man; but with regard to that job I was surely if theoretically denied because of racism, I ask: Why would I want to work for racists? What would my blood pressure be like then? I love fried chicken, and I can take or leave watermelon, but I would eat both in front of whites as quickly as I would in the company of blacks. A person who sees me enjoying a drumstick and thinks “Yep, black people really do love chicken” is an idiot, plain and simple, and I don’t give a rusty goddamn what he thinks.
So I give Touré credit for this: he has written a work that led me to look at myself and the world and draw conclusions I might not have otherwise. A book that makes someone do that cannot be said to have failed.
Touré concludes his book with a description of the tightrope that Barack Obama, Deval Patrick, and other successful black politicians have walked on the way to power. As he urges other blacks to take the same tortuous, torturous path, one that no white politician would have to follow, his message is both inspiring and, by its very nature, sad — an apt description of the state of black America.