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  • Postmodern Soul:The Innovative Nostalgia of Thomas Sayers Ellis
  • Keith D. Leonard (bio)

history repeats its mama …

Thomas Sayers Ellis

I am surprised that there are not more black artists and scholars of black literature talking about nostalgia. This absence is particularly striking since so many contemporary artists have turned to past icons for their art, and since there has been such a rich scholarly examination of African American cultural memory.1 Part of the problem, I am sure, is that so many contemporary artists and intellectuals have claimed to be “post” something, with “post-soul” being the most prominent and most widely accepted of these terms, all of which imply that the present is leaving the past behind. Another part of the problem is that there is little in African American history to be celebrated in the traditional rose-colored glasses of nostalgia. Thus the so-called post-soul generation actively and rightly resists the “restorative nostalgia” (to use Svetlana Boym’s term) at play in what Erica R. Edwards calls the official hagiography of the soul era, with that narrative’s inimical implication that we [End Page 340] should have that heroic history repeat itself (Edwards xxi). Nonetheless, when contemporary poets, pundits, and professors use terms like “post-soul” or “post-black”—practicing what Paul C. Taylor wittily calls “posterizing”—they resist this “official” hagiography by protesting too much their own acts of memory.2 Indeed, Nelson George’s field-defining lament of our era’s fall from its soulera communalist paradise reveals his nostalgic extension of soul’s cultural-nationalist strain into the present. George’s insightful work consistently implies that integrationism and mainstream success are politically suspect and that communalism should remain as the primary criterion of integrity in black cultural production. I doubt that George would accept being called nostalgic, though, because he is hardly romanticizing an era of segregation and exclusion. By contrast, Trey Ellis celebrates the passing of that very soul era by calling his self-proclaimed freedom from the anxieties of communal unity and political resistance a “new black aesthetic,” a posture that hardly seems to be nostalgic. Yet he uses the phrase “black aesthetic” to claim for his rejection of soul-era cultural nationalism the very integrity associated with that nationalism. There is a mode of memory at play here that is foundational to these postures which seem to resist it. That nostalgia needs more attention.

What we must see is that the unspoken nostalgia at the heart of post-soul culture derives not from the rightly critiqued yearning for a return, but from a desire to claim for contemporary innovation the acknowledged political integrity of honored soul-era practices. In this sense, poet Thomas Sayers Ellis was correct when he told editor Charles Henry Rowell in an interview, “history repeats its mama” (Ellis, “Mixed Congregation” 890). By trying to come into their own, contemporary artists are indeed reenacting the originating [End Page 341] principles and problems of the politically engaged, communally committed artistry of the 1960s. “Post-soul” is thus an appropriate description of much black literary culture of the early twenty-first century, less because it evokes either the freedom that Trey Ellis declares or the fall that George bemoans than because it evokes how the memory of past artistic politics—its terms, techniques, and achievements—is one key, empowering, and indispensable grounding for contemporary innovation. We should let this nostalgia speak, therefore, as its voice will declare just how fully the genuine innovations of this generation of artists depend for some of their best effects upon those artists’ adaptation of the soul-era culture from which they rightly and brilliantly differentiate themselves.

I turn to Thomas Sayers Ellis to frame this tentative recuperation of black nostalgic memory because his artistry in his first full volume, The Maverick Room (2005), and his activism in co-founding the now well-known Dark Room Collective exemplify how black literary and intellectual innovation of the past forty-five years—roughly the post-soul era—operates primarily through what I am calling an “innovative nostalgia.” This innovative practice of memory consists of an artist’s or intellectual’s attempt to reconcile in innovative...


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pp. 340-371
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