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Reviewed by:
  • In Search of the Black Fantastic: Politics and Popular Culture in the Post-Civil Rights Era
  • Robert Butler
Richard Iton . In Search of the Black Fantastic: Politics and Popular Culture in the Post-Civil Rights Era. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. 416 pp. $29.95.

This is a fresh, meticulously well researched study of how black popular culture responded to and helped to shape Black Atlantic politics from the end of World War II to the present. The book opens by focusing on "a familiar dilemma. How do the excluded engage the apparently dominant order?" (3) Iton provides a rich variety of answers to this question, ranging from the muffled protests of the early 1950s to the angry cries of defiance in contemporary rap and hip hop performances.

Throughout the book Iton stresses how the commercial and political pressures exerted on post-World War II artists have profoundly influenced their work. He argues convincingly that because African Americans and other people of color have experienced a "violent exclusion from the realms of formal politics," their popular expression was especially important in molding their informal political life. Black theater, films, and music have provided alternate discourses which are "transgressive" because they destabilize official discourse and thus provide new space for meaningful cultural work which radically challenges "coloniality."

Iton's perspective, while focusing mainly on developments in post-1945 America, is broadly transnational in scope, carefully tracing the relationships between African American life and the black cultures of the Caribbean, Africa, England, and Europe. He draws revealing connections between the civil rights movement in the United States and protest movements in Jamaica and Haiti, while also emphasizing how pan-African thinking strongly influenced figures such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Richard Wright. The book offers a very thorough analysis of how the black Caribbean helped to enrich African American art and politics. Figures such as Marcus Garvey, Kenneth Clark, William Patterson, St. Clair Drake, Robert Moses, Stokely Carmichael, Roy Innis, and Shirley Chisholm, to varying degrees, arose from Caribbean backgrounds and this enabled them to bring fresh perspectives to political life in the United States. Iton also stresses that African American art was transformed by writers and performers such as Claude McKay, Paule Marshall, Randy Weston, Cicely Tyson, and Sonny Rollins, all of whom were either born in the Caribbean or came from families emigrating from there. (Iton points out that Harry Belafonte's mother was a staunch "Jamaican Garveyite" [221] and this helps to explain why he maintained such a militant stance in his political life at a time when most performers were not willing to pay the price for speaking out against American racism.)

The book is grounded in a solid historical base, surveying the dilemmas faced by black artists from the Cold War to the present. Iton begins by focusing sharply on the example of Paul Robeson whose voice was tragically silenced by the American State Department, FBI, and CIA, which also systematically repressed any substantial [End Page 527] criticisms of official government policies. Lorraine Hansberry, Sidney Poitier, and Belafonte, each of whom deeply admired Robeson, had to work out their careers while being faithful to his outspoken criticisms of American racism even as they were also being careful to avoid the severe political punishments which destroyed his career and damaged his personal life. Iton offers intriguing explanations of how they were able to manage this. Hansberry had to reshape A Raisin in the Sun so that it would not fundamentally disturb its predominately white audiences, all the while preserving a very subversive subtext. Poitier specialized in roles in which "the intelligent and capable black man [would] keep his cool and dignity" while avoiding parts which tapped into deeper levels of black anger (227). Belafonte's light skin enabled him to develop a sexualized image which was denied to darker-skinned actors and singers but always remained frustrated by the prettified calypso music he was often forced to sing.

The book's later chapters on reggae, rap and hip hop are particularly strong. Iton regards these musical forms as interconnected, expressing a masculinist vision of the world that contrasts strikingly with the rhythm and blues...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1945-6182
Print ISSN
1062-4783
Pages
pp. 527-528
Launched on MUSE
2011-09-23
Open Access
No
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