Writing the Future of Black America: Literature of the Hip-Hop Generation
Daniel Grassian's Writing the Future of Black America (2009) is a useful companion piece to his earlier Hybrid Fictions: American Literature and Generation X (2003). Both are studies of the dynamic relationship between contemporary American literature and culture. While many of the cultural factors that shape the preoccupations and aesthetics of the "Gen-X" authors examined in Hybrid Fictions—almost all white—are also discussed in Writing the Future, Grassian suggests that "some central concerns of young African Americans are not necessarily the concerns of most non-African American Generation Xers" (5). Chief among these are issues of racial authenticity, as well as the impact of the Civil Rights Movement and the consequences of integration.
Grassian organizes his study around eight authors—Trey Ellis, Jake Lamar, Colson Whitehead, Paul Beatty, Danzy Senna, Allison Joseph, Terrance Hayes, and Suzan-Lori Parks. Devoting a chapter to each of these authors (with the exception of one chapter that focuses on both Joseph and Hayes), Grassian develops the picture of a relatively coherent literary movement ostensibly defined by hip-hop culture. The book begins with Ellis, who first articulated a specific artistic paradigm for this generation in his 1989 essay, "The New Black Aesthetic." Expanding on Ellis's assertions, Grassian takes up emergent concerns about the contradictions of popular multiculturalism and multi-ethnic identity that complicate earlier figurations of Ellis's "cultural mulatto." Within a hip-hop cultural framework, Grassian argues, the primary impact of hip-hop on this generation of writers is the ethos of self-determination, or what he describes as the "feel[ing] that they can achieve success by virtually ignoring white America" (6). Ellis expresses this through a rejection of the black/white dichotomy, which he sees as a limitation for African American literature and a reliance on stereotypical plot devices and caricatures. In the work of Jake Lamar, Grassian observes, this struggle for non-dichotomous self-conception is expressed in the subject's refusal to measure his or her [End Page 184] actions against a normative white standard that requires "working twice as hard" as white Americans and disaffiliating from African Americans of lower class standing (46-47). While Lamar addresses this tension primarily in his memoir, Bourgeois Blues (1991), he also critiques it in his novel The Last Integrationist (1996), which examines notions of black authenticity predicated on an acceptance of concrete distinctions between black and white cultures.
Grassian grounds his analysis of how these writers reflect upon their coming of age in the era of hip-hop in their concern with individualism and egotism, two psychosocial conditions he associates specifically with hip-hop culture. This is reflected in the number of isolated and alienated characters that populate these writers' fictional worlds; Whitehead and Beatty are particularly known for these character types. Grassian demonstrates how Whitehead's character J. in John Henry Days (2002) and the unnamed protagonist of Apex Hides the Hurt (2006) exemplify the quality of self-alienation in the context of a vapid commercial culture in which "personalities" rather than persons are seen to have the most value. Beatty's works also feature self-alienated characters, but, as Grassian shows, their alienation typically results from their failure to mesh with stereotypical definitions of black masculinity in popular cultural representations. The chapter on Beatty is thus an appropriate segue into the discussion of Senna, whose relationship to the black/white dichotomy is, unlike that of other writers of the hip-hop generation, not so much about evading it as expressing its complications.
The last two chapters—one on Joseph and Hayes and the other on Parks—turn to poetry and drama, two genres strongly identified with hip-hop culture because of their performative nature. Grassian reads these works as critiques of hip-hop culture that are engaged in "uncovering and counteracting stereotypes and destructive codes of behaviors for the hip-hop generation" (157). Rather than expressing much aesthetic affinity with the culture, Grassian argues, these authors demonstrate that at times "the greatest threat to African-Americans comes from themselves" (181).
Grassian's emphasis on thematic rather than formal analysis limits the impact of the work because it does not acknowledge how these writers participate in an aesthetic movement. The approach diminishes perception of their artistry and emphasizes their membership in a particular sociological group. Nevertheless, by offering a great deal of biographical information on the authors and tracing the development of various thematic concerns and personal attitudes across a range of works, Grassian provides a useful introduction to important young African American writers and their interpretations of the racial experience in the post-Civil Rights era. [End Page 185] Their work attempts to answer such salient questions as: "What does or should it mean to be African American in contemporary society? What role does or should literature play in the African American community? What spaces are opening or closing for multiethnic individuals? What progress has really been made since the Civil Rights movement? To what extent is popular culture and hip-hop empowering or enslaving African American community?" (16). Given the current debate over the concept of a postracial society, a survey of the perspectives of its first generation is a valuable project for making an assessment. [End Page 186]
Beauty Bragg (email@example.com) is an Associate Professor of English at Georgia College and State University. She teaches literature and culture of the African diaspora with a particular focus on African Americans. Her writings on rap music, gender, and contemporary literature have been published in scholarly journals and magazines such as Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism, Gender Forum, and Bad Subjects: Political Education for Everyday Life. Her current research focuses on how popular fiction by African American women has been impacted by the representation of women in commercial rap and hip-hop culture.