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Post Black: How A New Generation is Redefining African American Identity by Ytasha L. Womack

by Reniqua Allen
4 May 2012 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: General Issue [7] | Review
 

Review of: Ytasha L. Womack (2010) Post Black: How A New Generation is Redefining African American Identity. Lawrence Hill Books

Post Black is an overdue exploration that probes the question of what it means to be young and black in 21st century America.  It challenges the notion that there is a monolithic “black” identity and serves as an ode to the marginalized and emerging black folk in America – those under covered and overlooked by the media, because as the author Ytasha Womack notes, there is “very little understanding of who we are (p. 22).  Womack not only aims to define and expose the implications of a changing black American identity, but calls for younger generations to empower themselves by not being defined by singular cultural markers, which she believes is being closely guarded by black elite power brokers who want to maintain the status quo.

The Midwestern based journalist wrote Post Black in the aftermath of the election of Barack Obama.  Using a style that combines memoir, journalism, and scholarly inquiry, the book stands out as a unique look at what she says are emergent black groups, and the issues that many young black people are facing – like movement away from traditional spiritual communities, new platforms for entrepreneurship, African/Caribbean immigration, and neo-feminism – all through the lens of a young Gen-X black woman trying to figure out “who we are becoming.”  Womack writes with a sense of urgency saying that if black America doesn’t come to terms with itself, doesn’t redefine itself and its changing demographics, the community could face “cultural” implosion (p. 27).

In line with the idea of “change” that was tossed around so readily during Obama’s ascent to the Oval Office (and arguably discarded as economic conditions worsened), Womack’s book is explicitly about just that – change – though she is careful to state that it is not necessarily a bad thing.  Womack is at ground zero and we’re there experiencing these issues with her as she grapples with how members of Generation X and Y are redefining blackness, identity and generation.   Whether we’re meeting new entrepreneurs that are changing the way they reach the community, hanging at a posh party across the street from housing projects, having a conversation with community members that are concerned about poorer blacks in their neighborhood, or reading her tirade about black women who hate video vixens so much (stop focusing so much attention on them!), this no-holds-barred book delves head on into the complexities of identity today, making statements that many – black or white – would never say in a public forum (for example, that today’s black organizations often seem like masked networking opportunities.)  Womack manages to take us into places that scholars have often been unsuccessful at: the street-level, nitty-gritty, personal aspect of what black identity means in America to a member of Generation X.

Being part of this young generation that Womack talks about, this was a much-anticipated read for me, though it was clear from the beginning that the task she laid out was rather ambitious. Breaking it down into ten very accessible chapters often circled around these emergent groups, and culminating with a chapter on the Obama presidency, she attempts to explore these issues through popular culture, research and interviews with friends and experts.   While her book seems targeted at her peers, folks that are in her world rather than outside of it, Post Black is easily readable and enjoyable for a mainstream audience.  Her use of pop culture (though later in the book, ironically, she admits that today’s youth use pop culture as a “civic barometer” in absence of a protest and civil rights movement) and narrative storytelling, is a welcome departure from scholarly articles on the topic that often reduce the idea of identity to a sterile and cold subject.   They help the reader understand how identities are constructed within and outside of communities despite the fact that she doesn’t explicitly engage in a conversation about the social construct of identity.  Womack excels at simplifying complicated subject matters through anecdotes and then bringing the reader in for a closer examination of the topic.

Still Post Black never reaches its full potential.  To me, half of Post Black is like an extended conversation that I’d have with my professional brown girl clique during Sunday brunch while eating high priced grits and drinking mimosas.  The other half of it reads like musings I’d write in my personal diary. Neither of these are inherently bad traits.  In fact, Womack’s book is long overdue, and spills the conversation that had existed for too long only in what scholar Michael Dawson calls black counter public spaces to a broader public sphere. Yet while the author is successful at starting the conversations that we need to have, the conversation ultimately feels unfinished.  While I appreciate her casual tone, and entertaining stories, I wanted to hear more from her interviewees and more from the experts on what’s happening in black America.  While her friends and life stories provide for interesting fodder, Womack seems to over rely on this group for Post Black, leaving some chapters feeling thin.  Most of the characters appear only for a few pages in each chapter, and with very little background or context into their plight, they can come off as simplistic, or merely like a quote in a short news story, rather than part of the larger narrative of a changing black America.  Just as she aims to complicate black identity as a whole, complicating the identities of these “invisibles” and the characters that surround them would give more credence to her thesis.

It seems as if she struggled whether this should be a memoir or journalistic effort, and perhaps dissatisfied with either, decided to combine the two styles, causing her project to fall a little flat.  By choosing to write this in a semi-memoir style, some of the rigorous research that a more academic or journalistic work would produce is also a bit lost.  While Womack has clearly done her homework, most sections felt like they needed more details for one to have a deeper understanding of the subjects at large.  Moreover it seemed as though I was left with more questions at the end of each part than answers.

Each section of her book is fascinating in that it dares to explore such big and controversial topics – like whether blacks born in America are really African Americans – and often does not shy away from what will no doubt be very divisive rhetoric (like thanking the oft criticized video vixen for getting black women to the gym).  But at many points, she fails to deepen the conversation to really grapple with the issues at large. For example in talking about young black professionals, she starts telling us about her father meeting her in a Chicago, leaps into a fascinating account of a generational rift with an organization she was involved in, and concludes with an analysis of the differences between herself and her sister – a member of Generation Y – all within twenty pages. All were interesting accounts, but with a few more pages devoted to each of these stories, along with some deeper character analysis, the reader would have been able to understand some of the motivations of these characters further. More problematic is that she often lets her characters make bold statements or generalizations without pressing them or following up with her commentary or analysis in subsequent paragraphs. For example when an interviewee notes that Latin Americans are a good model of balancing mixed racial identities, a valid point, the author doesn’t press him to talk about the difficulties that Latin America often has over this very issue (p. 75).  This was the case with many passages in the book, even in some of the best chapters, and as soon as it felt like a great conversation was about to begin, without in-depth follow-ups, it would often slip away.

Additionally, while her use of anecdotes is refreshing, sometimes having longer sections with more quantifiable data may give a truer picture of what’s happening in black America in all its complexities and messiness. A more analytical approach would again strengthen, not detract from, many of her chapters. For example, in the section on religion, a part in which I mostly agree with, she writes about how many African Americans are moving away from the concept of organized religion, or at least moving to alternative practices. This is an important story.  However, what she fails to substantially talk about is the fact that black Americans are still highly religious – more than any other religious group and still participating in traditional religious rituals.  If she grappled with that, as well as using her own findings, it could have provided a messier, but more interesting analysis (p. 105).

However, more than an over reliance on anecdotes, Womack understands that black identity cannot be defined by one essential aspect, but often it seems as if she is writing as if what I call multifaceted blackness and these respective identities are a new thing. I understand that race is certainly being enacted in new ways.  We’ve never dealt with the election of a black president as community, or have controlled as many corporations, or lived in as many inter and intra-racial environments.  But we’re also in many ways fighting the same old battles; fighting for equal play, struggling for relevancy in popular culture (or at least, at minimum, a chance to be more than the maid or the jezebel and get acclaim for it), being bi-racial and dealing with the effects that the sub-prime lending crisis – this decade’s new redlining. Yet sometimes her account seems to rely on this idea that previous black culture was more monolithic in the past, an idea that superficially appears to be false.  Either way, a look at the relationship with identity today and the past, would help articulate her point that things have changed, by precisely pointing out exactly how things have changed.

Perhaps more of a focus one or two topics that she discusses would have given her a richer narrative.  One place that she comes back to over and over again throughout various chapters is leadership/organizational un/fulfillment of the elite classes.  Her commentary and anecdotes about organizations in the black community were convincing and well articulated.  It’s clear that she has strong feelings about this, along with a bevy of interesting stories, and an archive of research on the matter.  It seems like a natural place for her to start her next book.

If there was a clearer focus, then perhaps I’d be more convinced by her many accounts in the book.  But, it was just too many stories, too many characters, and not enough space to develop a true picture of what’s happening with younger black Americans today. Other books like Eugene Robinson’s book Disintegration, also allude to this “splintering” of the black community, but does so in a much more focused way by looking at one aspect of changing black identity. Womack doesn’t have just one book in here, she has several great ones and each section could have benefited by a chance for her to do more reporting. Robinson’s account, which also mixes narrative and journalism, certainly benefits from its narrow focus.  On the other hand, maybe Womack did not intend for this work to be exhaustive, maybe her goal was just to start the conversation and open the door to a subject area that had previously been closed. If that was the case then it has been achieved.

Post Black is good for starting the conversation.  Womack’s inroads into the subject about identity among a new generation are fascinating, and an area that had been ignored by writers and scholars in the past.  She has ten areas of inquiry that all need volumes devoted to them, but she, at minimum, has narrowed down the conversation.  Overall, it’s an enjoyable read, albeit one that goes by too quickly.  Womack just whet my appetite and like many of my brunches with my girls, it felt like a meal that has ended too early and I want more.  All the questions have been raised.  Now it’s time to continue the conversation.

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Reniqua Allen is a freelance writer and documentary producer. She is currently a Bernard L. Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation where she is working on a project that focuses on the erosion of the black middle class. She has produced and written for outlets such as The Washington Post, Congressional Quarterly, Politico, PBS, MSNBC, and HBO. She is also a doctoral student at Rutgers University in American Studies where work looks at the intersection of race, class, popular culture and politics. Her dissertation will explore "Post Cosby" representations of the black middle class on television and film.
All posts by: Reniqua Allen | Email

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