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HARRY J. ELAM, JR. Change Clothes and Go A Postscript to Postblackness In August 2001, artist and composer Keith Townsend Obadike put his blackness up for sale via the online auction house eBay with bidding open from August 8 though 18, 2001. Listed under Collectibles/Culture/Black Americana, Obadike offered buyers “an heirloom” that had been “in the seller’s possession for twenty-eight years,” along with a certi‹cate of authenticity, but warned that he could not guarantee its operation outside of the United States.1 This project, the latest installment in Obadike’s Internet installations entitled, extends his online explorations of blackness and its meanings. As “cyber” performance or conceptual art, Obadike’s work constitutes a further example of black cultural traf‹c. In addition, its content and form raise signi‹cant issues for our consideration as we end this collection. For Obadike’s auction foregrounds not only an impending avenue for the travel of blackness through the circuits of cyberspace but highlights the very portability of blackness. Rife with cultural and political implications, Obadike’s cyber action asks: What happens as the connection between black bodies and black cultural expression becomes not only more diverse but more disconnected, when blackness travels on its own, separate and distinct from black people? Most certainly, Obadike’s traf‹cking in blackness holds historic resonance as well as contemporary signi‹cance. It conjures images of the auction block and black bodies sold to the highest white bidder. In the arena of slavery, the auction block compelled restricted, distorted performances of blackness where any display of black agency raised concerns, and blackness became understood only in terms of white desire and black economic utility. Saidiya Hartman terms the auction block a “scene of subjection” in which terror and pleasure converged. She maintains that performative 379 moments of blacks singing on the way to the auction blocks were “envisioned fundamentally as vehicles for white enjoyment” and that black bodies were “the purveyors of pleasure.”2 During the strange institution of slavery, blackness circulated as commodity, as a ‹gurative product only equal to three-‹fths of a man. Hortense Spillers has recognized in slavery a particularly American “grammar” that placed humans and inanimate objects in one “grammatical series” and collapsed through congruity these disparate and unrelated items within the “same text of realism.”3 Reimagining Spillers and equally re-creating a unique “American Grammar,” Obadike’s posits his blackness for sale on eBay as a black collectible, next to black lawn jockeys, ceramic smiling mammy cookie jars, and Black Sambo dolls, and through this alignment constructs a “simultaneity of disparate items in a grammatical series.”4 Such an arrangement highlights the absurdity of Obadike’s sale as well as its historical legitimacy. With Obadike as with slavery, blackness circulates as object, as commodity, for blackness repeatedly has been the subject of commercial traf‹c, bought, sold, used, and abused. Yet present in Obadike’s sale of blackness, in spite of its invocation of black historical commodi‹cation, auction blacks, and chattel slavery, are tones of irreverence. For Obadike pursues this auction with humor and satire, without the seriousness or veneration expected when one discusses or even artistically engages in the sale of black bodies. Such artistic license with history re›ects perhaps what Mark Anthony Neal terms a “postsoul aesthetic.” Delineating the political, social, and cultural experiences of the African American community since the end of the civil rights and Black Power movements as “postsoul,” Neal sees within the postsoul aesthetic a seemingly sacrilegious approach by contemporary African American artists to sacred icons of the African American past.5 Discussing the treatment of Rosa Parks in the hip-hop duo Outkast’s song “Rosa Parks,” Neal theorizes that “one of the post-soul strategies is to willingly ‘bastardize’ black history and culture to create alternative meanings.”6 These tactics emerge from and within the current conditions of black cultural traf‹c in which a wariness about the burdens of blackness often exists in tandem with a nostalgia for sounds, ‹gures, clothing from that past; in which historical images, music, politics are interrogated, repeated, and revised in ways that acknowledge the different modalities, exigencies, needs, and desires of today. Neal maintains that the postsoul aesthetic functions as a “radical reimagining of the contemporary African-American experience, attempting to liberate contemporary interpretations of that experience BLACK CULTURAL TRAFFIC 380 from sensibilities that were formalized and institutionalized during earlier social paradigms.”7 The fact...


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