Who Are Our Neighbors in a “Post-Black” World?

by SOPHIE KERMAN
What could the Mixed Blood‘s production of Neighbors have to say to the New York Times Sunday Book Review? Quite a lot, I imagine, and I bet the characters in “Neighbors” would have some strong words for the Times.

The NY Times article in question is called “The Post-Black Condition” (September 25, 2011), a review of a book by Touré called Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?: What it Means to Be Black Now. Touré profiles 105 prominent African-Americas, including Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Dave Chappelle. The review, written by Harvard professor Orlando Patterson, outlines Touré’s argument: essentially, now that black people have attained middle-class status, visibility, integration and political power, there is no longer any “correct” way to be black. As Touré claims, post-blackness is “a completely liquid shape-shifter that can take any form.”

Having recently seen “Neighbors” and been blown away by its portrayal of the demands of racial performance (read the Aisle Say TC review here), I would like to think for a minute about this “post-blackness” idea.

And since this is all about dialogue, let me present an imaginary conversation between the Times review and the characters in “Neighbors” – one which I hope you will continue in the “Comments” section. (Forgive me for caricaturing just a little, but that’s kind of what this is all about, right?)

Times Review: Just so we’re clear, post-black isn’t the same as post-race.

Zip Coon, a well-dressed black man with black paint on his face: Is there a difference between a black person and a race that just “happens to be” black?

Times Review: There is. Touré isn’t saying that race isn’t important any more. It’s just that there is now so much more freedom for African-Americans to choose how they present themselves.

Richard Patterson returns from work, briefcase in hand, reading Aristotle: That’s exactly right. When I was given a job as a university professor, do you think the hiring committee compared me to some kind of “model black man”? That would be absurd!

Times Review: Exactly. Do you think Obama wakes up in the morning thinking about what percentage black he is? Of course not. Otherwise no one in the international community would take him seriously. He can (to quote myself) “seamlessly display the many forms of blackness when the occasion demands.”

Mammy enters with a large apple pie. Mammy: Well, Mister Obama should just come down and be part of our show! We’s all one big family here, and we need some good performers. (aside:) Jim Crow Junior, you get back here and put on your costume!

Times Review: That’s not what I meant. I meant that thanks to the civil rights movement, independent artists and well-known celebrities like Oprah and Dave Chappelle can choose exactly how they project themselves.

Sambo, wearing a grass skirt and no shirt: Yo we don’t got no TV set cause we po’.

Times Review: And really the only problem with modern post-black identity is that it’s just plain neurotic: like the Jews, black people are creating identities out of imagined persecution.

Topsy, a loud-mouthed teenager whose clothes are just a little bit too small for her: Helllllll no! I talk to Massa, and he say, My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard! Damn right, it’s better than yours!

Richard Patterson: Can you please get these n*****s out of my yard?

So what do you think, readers? Based on “Neighbors,” the NY Times review, Touré, or (and especially) your own personal experience, are we living in a “post-black” society? Are African-Americans free to choose their own racial performance, or are they still constrained? And, as both the Times and “Neighbors” might wonder: constrained by whom?

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