- Not Being and Blackness:Percival Everett and the Uncanny Forms of Racial Incorporation
1. Rethinking "The New Black Aesthetic"
While critics have indicated the shortfalls of Trey Ellis's "The New Black Aesthetic" (1989), they are less acute in elaborating the value of the manifesto as an account of key material changes in African American cultural production. Eric Lott captures how Ellis's heady zeal about emergent trends in black aesthetics leads him to collapse disparate artists into "the false totalizing of a generation of intellectuals" (244). In a related vein, Madhu Dubey, among others, rightly points out that the essay inadequately addresses class and gender as substantive terms of analysis.1 These blind spots notwithstanding, Ellis's work remains one of the first coherent articulations of a historical transition from the autonomous arts organizations of Black Power nationalists to the corporate-based aesthetics of the 1980s. Offering one measure of this distinction, Ellis declares, "[T]oday's popular culture is guided by blacks almost across the board" (237). In this admittedly hyperbolic formulation, he stresses the substantial influence wielded by such leaders in popular entertainment as Reginald Hudlin, Russell Simmons, and Spike Lee. [End Page 726]
For Ellis, these individuals' popularity should be distinguished from the racial faddism of earlier cultural movements because they have built enduring institutions for creating African American art, including the Black Filmmaker Foundation, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, the Black Rock Coalition, and Def Jam Records. On the surface, Ellis's formulation might seem to hearken back to a dream of independent black cultural institutions that was a hallmark of the nationalisms advanced by Amiri Baraka, Harold Cruse, and others. Arguing for the creation of autonomous black theaters, presses, and journals, these nationalists pressed agendas that depended on the prospect of economic independence from corporate interests.2 Despite a superficial resemblance to nationalist arts organizations of the past, these contemporary entities operate far more interdependently with mainstream corporations. As a case in point, Ellis champions the Black Filmmaker Foundation because it "is one of the first black-arts organizations that couples the creativity of the new black artists themselves with the insider's knowledge of high finance from the current flood of young black investment bankers and lawyers" (239). An index of this artistic sensibility, then, is the union of black art and the economic interests of capitalist institutions.
Ellis should be recognized for his shrewd insight about a distinctive network of social relations in a nascent form. Scholars from Paul Gilroy to Mark Anthony Neal have only confirmed his sense that black expressive culture has become more centralized within mainstream cultural institutions and capitalist markets.3 According to Neal, the "corporate annexation of black popular expression" has now become so comprehensive that black scholars should view this milieu as a prime source of "inspiration" for their "critical and intellectual perspectives" (102, 121). Echoing Ellis's enthusiasm about this centralization of black culture, Neal suggests that black intellectuals view their interests as synonymous with the mass market.
What one sees in the literature produced from the late 1980s forward is an evolving tension between works and the social processes that have made black literary art legible in the marketplace and regnant in liberal institutions like the university.
Ellis's work suggestively raises, yet cannot sufficiently address, the historical question of what happens to African American cultural expression once it is no longer an emergent subfield vying for legitimacy and becomes established at the center of the dominant culture. How might the legitimation of a particular form of black expressive culture like literature—one that has its own market niche, specialized critical discourse, and elevated institutional standing—change the character of that tradition? Such questions have become especially pressing for African American writers in the twenty-first century. What one sees in the literature produced from the late 1980s forward is an evolving tension between works and the social processes that have made black literary art legible in the marketplace and regnant in liberal institutions like the university. One may turn to texts across an array of styles and literary genres to elaborate this [End Page 727] tension, including George C...