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Black Modernism isn't always only about “being black”

Last night, George, Barrett (Barry) Watten, Carla Harryman, and I drove to Columbus to see Bryan Barber’s Idlewild (2006). It may have been the first time I saw a movie about black people that was not about being black.

Even one pass beneath the surface of that statement reveals cultural assumptions about what “being black” means with the suggestion that art concerned with “being black” is not as valuable as art concerned about something else. In a racist culture, such critical sentiment may be interpreted as itself racist.

I think addressing blackness is important and many works of art that do treat of it and related subjects are excellent pieces of art. I won’t bother to name the several dozen that immediately leap to mind. They are part of the literary canon of both the United States and the world. However, works identified as those produced by African American artists are almost without exception about the fact of being black in a racist society.

It is true that racism and matters of race affect all people in the United States with particularly strong effect on members of oppressed racial groups. This is not to say that all members of racially oppressed groups experience matters of race as a given in their day-to-day lives. Not all people of black African ancestry think about the ill effects of living in a racist culture every one of their waking seconds. This also means that not everything such people experience is best understood through the lens of race relations. In other words, sometimes some Americans with black African ancestors aren’t thinking about how The Man is keeping them down and the actions and situations of these people aren’t necessarily best interpreted as an effect of The Man keeping them down.

But—as I have been made more aware in moving from Central California to, first, Virginia and, now, Ohio—there are people who have black African ancestors who are constantly aware of the ill effects of racism and whose experience is shaped by these effects (and the perception of these effects) in a way that is life-defining. For many of these people, understanding how matters of race affect them and the socius of which they are a part is a matter of being, of survival.

Considering these two very rough distinctions—blacks who always are engaged in a racial dialectic and blacks able to disengage from racial dialectics—it’s apparent they are expedient categories at best, ones that ignore the complex ways in which people (of color) perceive race and are affected by it. Even so, these categorical distinctions enable one to imagine for a moment that a work of art created by a racial minority may not be best apprehended as a work by a person beset on all sides by a racist culture, racist though that culture may be and that, ultimately, a work of art produced by a minority artist is not about race.

Idlewild visually and allusively presents the era of black Modernism in a way that is not about “being black”. end of article