restricted access Black Cultural Politics at the End of History
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Black Cultural Politics at the End of History
Charisma and the Fictions of Black Leadership, Erica R. Edwards. University of Minnesota Press, 2012.
More Beautiful and More Terrible: The Embrace and Transcendence of Racial Inequality in the United States, Imani Perry. New York University Press, 2011.
In Search of the Black Fantastic: Politics and Popular Culture in the Post-Civil Rights Era, Richard Iton. Oxford University Press, 2008.

In a series of searing essays published in the 1990s, political scientist Adolph Reed indicted scholars of cultural studies, and critics of African-American literature and culture in particular, for what he called "posing as politics": the tendency to exalt black culture as vigorous political action while abdicating the effort "to alter the structure and behavior of institutions of public authority, what used to be called the state" (168). On this account, the language of resistance began to occlude state-centered politics while sustaining a putatively radical or progressive aura. Moreover, this mode of theorizing cultural politics, associated most notably with figures like Paul Gilroy and Robin D. G. Kelley, perpetuated the image of the Negro as a preternaturally expressive being who intervenes most effectively in the political sphere not by undertaking, say, the unglamorous minutia of labor activism, but by clutching a microphone in the poetry cipher. Other culprits included theorists of structuralist Marxism, left sectarianism, poststructuralism, and postmodernism, all of whom, in Reed's estimation, obscured the realities of class inequality (and even the possibility of objective truth), and proffered the sensibility that nothing can change unless everything is changed, thereby vitiating prospects for organized, progressive movements and class-based politics—for Reed, the only real politics. Reed's claims were not necessarily original, but few articulated them with such clarity and trenchancy—and, most importantly, with such concern for the apparently deleterious consequences of these avant-garde currents for the disenfranchised black majority.

In recent years, poststructuralism has lost its élan, presumably as recent global developments—the international economic crisis, the global "war on terror"—are summoning different critical [End Page 796] idioms, even if certain ingredients in this chapter of French intellectual history remain embedded in contemporary thought. Nor is the fixation on identity and difference as pervasive as in previous decades, at least in the facile manner Reed assails. But black cultural politics continues to thrive and has arguably gained momentum in the years following his intervention. Younger generations of scholars continue to theorize black culture and (or as) politics, often under the rubrics of Afro futurism, black Atlanticism, hip-hop activism, diaspora studies, or black cosmopolitanism.

That literary critics and humanistic social theorists persist in interrogating the political efficacy of black culture is not surprising; they are, after all, cultural critics, not labor organizers or political scientists, and Reed's critique did not specify what humanistic inquiry in black studies ought to undertake (although he has recently, along with Kenneth Warren, initiated a compelling examination of the "materialist foundations" of black intellectual history1). But is this antagonism between cultural and normative politics warranted, or might these approaches constitute potentially reciprocal strategies in a common political and discursive field?

Though American literary scholarship has not, on the whole, responded to Reed's call, one of the productive if unintended effects of his intervention is that it has challenged younger scholars to formulate with greater rigor and precision exactly how black literature and culture operate in the political realm—and to consider how this cultural production, which some commentators frame as almost teleologically emancipatory, sometimes serves reactionary ends. For instance, Gene Jarrett, in his recent study Representing the Race: A New Political History of African American Literature (2011), develops a "critical historiography attuned to the political contexts of literary texts" in order to advance his "argument that literature has helped African Americans secure or improve their representation in the 'formal' realms of electoral voting, government intervention, public policy, and law, not just in the 'informal' or cultural realms where special portrayals of the 'black race' aim to affect social attitudes and attain racial justice" (4).

Yet many scholars writing on black culture are uninterested in the kinds of formal politics Jarrett aligns, often persuasively...