Being Afraid of “Post-Blackness”: What’s Neoliberalism Got to Do With It?
Colson Whitehead, in his novel Sag Harbor (2009), tells the semi-autobiographical tale of one summer in the title-giving community on Long Island, where wealthy American blacks come to spend their vacations. Theirs is a life of privilege, complete with beach houses and BMWs-a lifestyle that, not entirely surprisingly, is regarded as rather uncommon for blacks by most whites, according to its narrator, 15-year-old Benji Cooper, Whitehead’s alter ego. Yet, whereas E. Franklin Frazier in his 1950s account of the black bourgeoisie observed that this class was “uprooted,” being estranged from their cultural tradition, this seems not to be too big an issue for Benji and his friends-“It was simply who we were,” he concludes.2 What this might imply is also that a self-confident black middle class is less an anomaly in the 1980s (when the novel is set) and afterwards than it was in the mid-twentieth century. In a New York Times review of Whitehead’s novel, the writer, music journalist, and television host Touré praised Sag Harbor for its “unapologetic” depiction of a world that he seems to be familiar with himself. Trying to find a term that best designates this new era for black America, Touré settles for “[p]ost-blackness.”3 What distinguishes this new moment and its “definition of blackness” from its predecessors (“street-fighting militancy,” “one-foot-out-the-ghetto angry brilliance,” or “nihilistic, unrepentantly ghetto […] thuggishness”) is precisely its lack of an attempt to narrowly define blackness. Rather, the latter is regarded “as an open-source document, a trope with infinite uses.”4 Two years later Touré published a book of his own, entitled Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?, promising to explain What It Means to Be Black Now, as its subtitle goes, at a historical moment when the president of the United States is a “progressive brother who fistbumps his wife.”5