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Reflecting Black

Reflecting Black: African-American Cultural Criticism

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON
Volume: 9
Copyright Date: 1993
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 384
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.cttts5tr
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  • Book Info
    Reflecting Black
    Book Description:

    From rap music to preaching, from Toni Morrison to Leonard Jeffries, from Michael Jackson to Michael Jordan, Reflecting Black explores as never before the varied and complex dimensions of African-American culture through personal reflection, expository journalism, scholarly investigation and even homily.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-8460-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Introduction. Beyond Essentialism: Expanding African-American Cultural Criticism
    (pp. xiii-xxxiv)

    Contemporary African-American culture is radically complex and diverse, marked by an intriguing variety of intellectual reflections, artistic creations, and social practices. Its vibrant diversity cautions against portraying the constitutive experiences of African-American culture in monolithic terms. And yet, there exists an unfailing precedent to cast black culture in a distorted light and to view it through the prisms of racist stereotype or racial essentialism. The former is the attempt to apply inferior science to undisciplined social observation, fueled by the effort to foist overdrawn generalizations about individual character onto entire racial groups. The latter often occurs as black intellectuals oppose...

  5. Part I What’s Going On?: Black Popular Culture

    • 1 The Culture of Hip-Hop
      (pp. 3-15)

      From the very beginning of its recent history, hip-hop music—or rap, as it has come to be known—has faced various obstacles. Initially, rap was deemed a passing fad, a playful and ephemeral black cultural form that steamed off the musical energies of urban black teens. As it became obvious that rap was here to stay, a permanent fixture in black ghetto youths’ musical landscape, the reactions changed from dismissal to denigration, and rap music came under attack from both black and white quarters. Is rapreally as dangerous as many critics argue?Or are there redeeming characteristics to...

    • 2 Rap Music and Black Culture: An Interview
      (pp. 16-22)

      In “Rap, Race, and Reality,” you offered a brief summary of the history of rap music, from its initial stage of boastful partying, through a social critique phase (epitomized by Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message”), to the “pluralization” phase of Run-D.M.C. and others. Since that essay appeared, rap has not only busted out commercially, but also has intensified a cultural debate via the religious-and education-oriented rap of such groups as Boogie Down Productions, Public Enemy, and more recent Islamic-centered groups (not to mention the controversies surrounding groups like N.W.A. and 2 Live Crew). I’m interested in your assessment of these developments....

    • 3 Spike Lee’s Neonationalist Vision
      (pp. 23-34)

      In 1986, a distinct phase in contemporary African-American cinema commenced. Spike Lee wrote, produced, directed, and acted inShe’s Gotta Have It, an independently made sex comedy that cost $175,000 but grossed over $6 million after distribution by Island Pictures. Since then Lee, and an expanding cadre of black filmmakers, including Robert Townsend, Keenen Ivory Wayans, and Euzhan Palcy, have written and directed a number of films that explore various themes in black life. Lee in particular creates films that are part of a revival of black nationalism (neonationalism), a movement that included provocative expressions in the cultural sphere (elements...

    • 4 Michael Jackson’s Postmodern Spirituality
      (pp. 35-63)

      Michael Jackson is, arguably, the greatestentertainerof the twentieth century. As an international superstar, Jackson has captured the devotion of a large segment of the world’s population in a manner reserved for a select few historic personages. Jackson strikes a deep, primal chord in the human psyche, fascinating us, perhaps, because he so easily and eerily represents us, even mirrorsus (all of us) at the same time. Thus, if he is not a NietzcheanÜbermensch, he is a Promethean allperson who traverses traditional boundaries that separate, categorize, and define differences: innocent/shrewd, young/old, black/white, male/female, and religious/secular.

      Perhaps this is...

    • 5 Be Like Mike?: Michael Jordan and the Pedagogy of Desire
      (pp. 64-77)

      Michael Jordan is perhaps the best, and best-known, athlete in the world today. He has attained unparalleled cultural status because of his extraordinary physical gifts, his marketing as an icon of race-transcending American athletic and moral excellence, and his mastery of a sport that has become the metaphoric center of black cultural imagination. But the Olympian sum of Jordan’s cultural meaning is greater than the fluent parts of his persona as athlete, family man, and marketing creation. There is hardly cultural precedence for the character of his unique fame, which has blurred the line between private and public, between personality...

    • 6 Bill Cosby and the Politics of Race
      (pp. 78-89)

      Bill Cosby is a formidable national icon. He is a powerful symbol of the graceful confluence of talent, wealth, and industry that are the American Dream. His television series, “The Cosby Show,” has singlehandedly revived the situation comedy, spawning numerous imitations within the genre, surely the sincerest form of media flattery. His show has even spun off the highly successful “A Different World,” a sitcom about contemporary black college life, second only to “The Cosby Show” in ratings and popularity. As if that weren't enough, “The Cosby Show” is now in syndication, with the prospect of generating almost a billion...

    • 7 Between Apocalypse and Redemption: John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood
      (pp. 90-112)

      By now the dramatic decline in black male life has become an unmistakable feature of our cultural landscape—although of course the causes behind the desperate condition of black men date much further back than its recent popular discovery. Every few months, new reports and conferences attempt to explain the poverty, disease, despair, and death that shove black men toward social apocalypse.

      If these words appear too severe or hyperbolic, the statistics testify to the trauma. For black men between the ages of 18 and 29, suicide is the leading cause of death. Between 1980 and 1985, the life expectancy...

  6. Part II Beyond the Mantra:: Reflections on Race, Gender, and Class

    • 8 Probing a Divided Metaphor: Malcolm X and His Readers
      (pp. 115-131)

      InThe Autobiography of Malcolm Xthe charismatic black religious nationalist recalls his momentous 1964 pilgrimage to Mecca, a visit that would alter the course of his life and career. After twelve years in which this minister of the Nation of Islam trumpeted a doctrine of the intrinsic evil of whites, likened the dream of American equality to a “nightmare” for American blacks, and championed a plan to redeem black Americans by saving them from the tide of brainwashing that had drowned awareness of the black race’s true superiority, X writes of an incident in Jedda, in which he is...

    • 9 The Liberal Theory of Race
      (pp. 132-145)

      The abysmal state of race relations in American culture is a continuing source of bewilderment and frustration. The reappearance of overt racist activity, especially on college and secondary school campuses, forces us to reevaluate our understanding of race as we approach the last decade of the twentieth century. In particular, the liberal theory of race, which has dominated the American understanding of race relations, has exhibited a crisis of explanation, manifested in its exponents’ inability to elucidate persistent forms of Afro-American oppression.

      Robert Anson’s bookBest Intentions:The Education and Killing of Edmund Perry(New York: Random House, 1988), which...

    • 10 Racism and Race Theory in the Nineties
      (pp. 146-156)

      Contemporary African-Americans are confronting the myriad and conflicted meanings of race, as well as a spiral of new cultural possibilities only partially revealed in the tortuous trajectory of American race relations since the civil rights revolution. Although Americans often give rhetorical assent to that era’s lessons of justice, freedom, and equality that derived their force from the renegotiation of race relations, we are barely able to generate the vision or national will to institutionalize our ideals in transformed social structures, redistributed economic resources, and broad political struggle. Even a cursory survey of the state of soul of blacks on several...

    • 11 Leonard Jeffries and the Struggle for the Black Mind
      (pp. 157-166)

      The whirlwind of controversy that surrounds the figure of Dr. Leonard Jeffries obscures the complex problems that must figure in an understanding of the nerve he has struck deep in the decadent cavity of race in America. The outspoken chairman of the black studies department of the City College of New York is the lightning rod for a gaggle of issues that embody a contemporary cultural crisis: theories of biological or environmental determinism, the rise of Afrocentric education, and claims about the African origin of civilization.

      A speech Jeffries made in July 1991, in which he said Jews and Italians...

    • 12 Sex, Race, and Class: Two Cases
      (pp. 167-181)

      Sex, race, and class have played a critical role in numerous American cultural revolutions during this century. The civil rights, feminist, and labor movements reflect the power of this provocative trio to spark social transformation, help define personal identity, draw attention to salient categories for social theory, and create coalitions between groups targeted by racial, sexual, and class oppression. But sex, race, and class have also caused considerable conflicts and tensions between groups who compete for limited forms of cultural legitimacy, visibility, and support. Two recent incidents in the public racial memory, the obscenity trial of the rap group 2...

    • 13 The Plight of Black Men
      (pp. 182-198)

      On a recent trip to Knoxville, I visited Harold’s barber shop, where I had gotten my hair cut during college, and after whenever I had the chance. I had developed a friendship with Ike, a local barber who took great pride in this work. I popped my head inside the front door, and after exchanging friendly greetings with Harold, the owner, and noticing Ike missing, I inquired about his return. It had been nearly two years since Ike had cut my hair, and I was hoping to receive the careful expertise that comes from familiarity and repetition.

      “Man, I’m sorry...

    • 14 Black Grass-Roots Leaders
      (pp. 199-209)

      Black leadership across America is entangled in the thickets of a punishing irony: it is riddled by uncertainty precisely when it should be enjoying its greatest impact in our nation’s history. The problem derives from changing expectations generated by increased black participation in electoral politics since the civil rights movement and a consequent concern about a transition in leadership styles.

      “Many black elected officials,” observes University of Pennsylvania historian Mary Frances Berry, “are concerned about the same things that every other politician is concerned about—staying in office as long as they can, getting reelected, and moving up in politics...

    • 15 Reflections on the 1988 Presidential Campaign
      (pp. 210-218)

      Any reflection on the 1988 presidential campaign’s meaning for progressives must begin by acknowledging the general demoralization of the left, which is principally due to two factors. First, there is the continuing contraction of the boundaries of discourse in American political culture, resulting in the consolidation of the right and the ongoing marginalization of the left. In a presidential race that saw Bush forces employ a skillful treachery in undermining forms of political tolerance and notions of ideological inclusiveness, even the word “liberal” became the dirty “L” word, anathema to the progress of American civil and social life. In such...

  7. Part III This Far by Faith:: Black Religion

    • 16 Mixed Blessings: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Lessons of an Ambiguous Heroism
      (pp. 221-249)

      The establishment of a national holiday to honor the life and achievements of Martin Luther King, Jr., is a reason for critical celebration. Only the second American and the first African-American to be feted with this singular honor, the celebration of King’s birthday is an occasion of national, religious, and racial significance. It acknowledges that King was the supreme embodiment of American citizenship and political engagement, the highest manifestation of the American religious genius, and the richest expression of the multifaceted character of the black experience in America.

      On the other hand, the King birthday celebration also presents the danger...

    • 17 Martin and Malcolm
      (pp. 250-266)

      Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X are the towering icons of contemporary African-American culture. Of course, King has transcended the boundaries of race. His iridescent image has been seized upon to illumine an astonishing array of social projects—and commercial products—whose humanitarian pedigree is thought to be vouchsafed by symbolic solidarity with an American hero. But the international fame and nearly universal respect he now commands have not diminished his appeal among common black people who will never know either. Millions of black homes continue to display portraits of King, his graceful humility radiating a perennial blessing to...

    • 18 For Jonathan’s Sake: The Morality of Memory—a Sermon
      (pp. 267-275)

      Gratitude, certainly, must count as one of the central virtues of Christian faith. The posture of appreciation for a kind and helpful word spoken or a hospitable gesture performed is consistently affirmed throughout the Bible. In one respect, this is so because the biblical conception of gratitude derives from an explicit acknowledgment that, in James’s words, “all that is good, everything that is perfect . . . is given from above” (James 1: 17). Thus, the origin of the many manifestations of mercy, kindness, justice, peace, and love may be traced back to God, the ultimate source of whatever form...

    • 19 Rap Culture, the Church, and American Society
      (pp. 276-285)

      The fevered response that rap culture has recently evoked presents a telling contrast to the tepid indifference that greeted its obscure origins in New York’s ghettos little more than a decade ago. At best, rap was first viewed as a faddish sideshow to New York’s carnival of urban decay, a ritual diversion of social boredom and criminal imagination into culturally useful acts of rhetorical invention. As rap evolved, its artists ingeniously inhabited the creative constraints of living primarily by the word (rap’s strict originality depends on its speech, not its music, which is usually borrowed, although often imaginatively, from other...

    • 20 “God Almighty Has Spoken from Washington, D.C.”: American Society and Christian Faith
      (pp. 286-321)

      As usual Stanley Hauerwas (this time with Michael Baxter) has, in “The Kingship of Christ: Why Freedom of ‘Belief’ Is Not Enough,” given us a great deal to think about in wrestling with the persistent problems growing out of the church-state debate. Arguing that there are irresolvable tensions between American society and Christian faith, the authors deliver a tough rebuke to those theologians who “posit some kind of harmony between the two by means of a so-called church-state theory.”¹ The authors further maintain that most Christian theologians conspire to “privatize and subordinate Christianity,” especially when they assume that “Christianity consists...

    • 21 The Promise and Perils of Contemporary Gospel Music
      (pp. 322-330)

      Traditional gospel is the music of mass choirs, ecstatic solos, and pounding, clapping rhythms. “Real gospel music is an intelligible sermon in song,” says Harold Bailey, who led the Harold Bailey singers in the 1960s and 1970s. Throughout its history, this church music has influenced, and been influenced by, the popular music of its time.

      Today’s acts—like BeBe and CeCe Winans, Sounds of Blackness, Take Six, Commissioned, Tramaine Hawkins, and the Winans brothers—have added high-priced producers, up-tempo arrangements, and pop instrumentations to traditional gospel. Thus armed they are gaining airplay on so-called contemporary urban radio, home otherwise to...

  8. Index
    (pp. 331-344)
  9. Permissions
    (pp. 345-346)
  10. Back Matter
    (pp. 347-347)