While it is obviously true that Kehinde Wiley, one of the hottest artists in New York, is very different from the black artists Jacob Lawrence or Romare Bearden in his attitude toward his subjects, Wiley still draws on black history, black images. Similarly, Touré’s short stories in The Portable Promised Land (2002) and his novel, Soul City (2004), are allegories written in a black jive that has lost none of its connection to the past and depends on it for meaning. Many critics have made the point that white America has no trouble taking black culture on board while leaving black people out in the cold.
Touré urges black people to claim the freedom of the artist. This message from James Baldwin’s fiction is hardly new. Touré has little to say about the “new Jim Crow” that has put so many poor young blacks in prison. For him, blackness is above all about style. Touré’s interviewees stress the importance of not internalizing society’s messages about blackness, a dictum that goes back to Marcus Garvey. What’s new is not knowing whether racism is behind the hassles that come up in daily life for a black person. Nelson George: “Now, if they show you their ass somehow then you have to decide whether this is racism or it’s because they’re assholes.”
Touré asserts that much of black America did not share white America’s outrage at the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001: “A spoiled country getting the comeuppance it deserved.” Many whites may also have felt this “emotional distance,” just as many blacks were, indeed, grief-stricken. But then Touré moves quickly on to his main point: the end of ambivalence about being American for blacks like him. “We are American. And we are so American that rejecting this country means rejecting part of ourselves.”
Historically, Pan-Africanism has been a component of American black nationalism, but Touré makes it clear that his generation isn’t looking to Africa as their source of black identity, a major generational difference:
Black Americans and Africans are speaking different languages when it comes to race because of histories on different sides of slavery and the Atlantic…. We are, like jazz, rock ’n roll, and hiphop, a child of Africa molded by distinctly American longings, joys, and pains as well as uniquely shaped by being in America.
Touré’s parents grew up under segregation in the projects in Brooklyn, “with laws and society arrayed to attempt to keep them boxed in to niggerdom.” But Touré’s parents reared their family in a middle-class suburb of Boston. Touré went to private school, where he played tennis and was not the only black kid in his classes. “I grew up in an integrated world without racist laws holding me back.” Now Touré lives in a hip, mixed section of Brooklyn, has married outside the faith, as he puts it, and is socially relaxed enough that when his toddler dived into a piece of watermelon he trusted that his white friends were laughing because children do cute things, not because a pickaninny displayed the response to watermelon that they as whites had been conditioned to expect.
Touré represents the anti-essentialist idea of blackness, a discourse of privilege, far from the race feeling that said if it happens to one of us, it happens to all of us. But I remember what it is like, wanting to break away from categories not of your own devising. I told myself that I would not become one of those old heads who says, In my day…. Still, I find myself thinking back to my youth, when not long after King was killed my sister tried to tell me about a cousin of my mother’s who was lynched in 1930. I didn’t want to hear it. I fled. I got away from that contagious form of blackness, the historical truth.
Then a few years later, I read J. Saunders Redding’s On Being Negro in America (1951), a book from Elizabeth Hardwick’s shelves. Redding, by then a prim professor, remembered that when he was at Atlanta University in 1930, he armed himself after a classmate, Dennis Hubert, was lynched because he’d been seen talking to a white girl. The name of my mother’s cousin rushed toward my eyes. I phoned home. My mother had been six years old when it happened. She recalled that her mother was wearing a blue dress. She left the house suddenly….