Monday, October 11, 2010

The New Black Aesthetic: A Conversation With Novelist Trey Ellis

Trey Ellis published Platitudes in 1988, a satire that is actually three stories in one that follows its protagonist, Earle, a nerdy black kid helplessly in love with a black socialite Dorothy. Ellis constructs Earle as a social misfit out of touch with most things "black". So much so that his internal dialogue is accented by consciously performing blackness, as illustrated by the passage below when while in pursuit of Dorothy, Earle begins to frequent a soul food diner in Harlem where his love interest works.
Let's bob the old head to some funky beats. That'll make them think I'm cool. Yeah I'm rapping inside my head that's how cool I be, shake your groove thang shake your groove thang yeah yeah yeah
Earle is an outsider to the world he has stepped into. Though black himself he feels the need to portray a specific type of "blackness" in order to fit-in.    

What Ellis is working through in his novel appears in a more succinct form at the conclusion of his work in a short essay entitled "The New Black Aesthetic". Like other authors, we have reviewed here, Ellis believes there is something particularly distinct about this current generation of black Americans that did not hold true for past generation, or at least is manifesting itself in new ways. 

The New New Negro

The New Black Aesthetic Ellis argues, is driven by "cultural mulattos" a term he uses to describe black Americans who straddle and are able to move comfortably in between both white and black worlds. The sons and daughters of former Civil Right Era activists, fully realized and outside of the vestiges of a "slave mentality" and with little concern for how white people or other black Americans might perceive their art or work. They are an ascending black middle class who are college educated and do not assign themselves to the usual tropes of black identity such as baggy jeans, ebonics, and Hip Hop culture. Ellis argues that this group of artists are reaching their critical mass and are beginning to re-shape what we have traditionally called black art. 

These individuals are less concerned about protecting black (or other) sensibilities, but are particularly interested in disturbing traditional understanding of blackness. They are unconcerned with a simple and positive exploration of what it means to be black, but want to understand the underbelly and all the complications of being black in America. They do all this without asking permission from anyone. 

Ellis goes even further and argues that folks of his New Black Aesthetic are unconcerned with race and racism. They are not preoccupied with it like their earlier counterparts of the Black Arts Movement, for them, "racism is a hard and little-changing constant that neither surprises nor enrages". Meaning that questions of race and racism are not necessarily at the center of conversation for this generation of artists and they are certainly not going to stop in the face of it. 

Among the artist of his New Black Aesthetic Ellis names Vernon Reid, a black Rock N Roller and one of the founders of the Black Rock Coalition (which includes groups like Blackaliscious and Bloc Party); Russel Simmons famous media mogul and founder of Def Jam whose self-described mission is to sell "to pop America what they thought was exclusively black". Or Spike Lee whose School Daze (1988) brought to the forefront the conversation around "good" and "bad"hair  and issues of skin-color in the black community.   

Although Ellis was writing from a slightly earlier time (Platitudes was first published in 1988), this new aesthetic manifest itself in the satire of Dave Chappelle whose short lived Comedy Central show personified the crack epidemic that devastated black communities in the 70s in the hysterical Tyrone Biggums, sent pimps back in time to free slaves, and created Clayton Bigsby the blind black white-supremacist. Or in Aaron McGruder's Boondocks, which assails protected bastions of blackness like BET, JET, and Tyler Perry, while serving up heaps of anime style violence, and playing with performances of black identity and masculinity. 

The New Black Aesthetic and You

Ellis' description of this a new era of artists is accurate in someways, but also strikes me as separated intentionally from the experience of the black masses. Even as Ellis acknowledges that the folks of his New Black Aesthetic are connected to the black poor and have compassion for their plight there is a sense of distance from the experiences of average black Americans. An omission that other cultural theorist such as Mark Anthony Neal have acknowledged. 

Ellis has it right in that one of the markers of post-modern black identity is its lack of ties to what once constrained black expression, and that in a new landscape black Americans feel more empowered to express themselves and their various blacknesses in a myriad of fashions. These identities are however connected: high and low, wealthy and poor, educated and street culture, and are all colliding and are explored by the folks of the New Black Aesthetic. 

Ellis treats racism as an afterthought for his comrades of the New Black Aesthetic who are able to smoothly move through white and black worlds as cultural mulattos. Though, this may very well be for elites and those that have access to the levers of power, but in reality most of black American are unable to access this magic trick. What I believe Ellis is trying to communicate here is the ability for black artists today to imagine stories void of white folks and themes of racism. We see the beginnings of this idea in the works of Alice Walker and Zora Neal Hurston, who tell stories that are deeply entrenched in exploring the world of black folks with no intrusion from a "white" narrative. 

A quick look at commercial Hip Hop, however, proves that we still have a long way to go before we reach the liberated position Ellis believes his New Black Aesthetic has risen to. In some ways, Hip Hop's "I don't give a fuck" attitude is a result of a new black aesthetic devoid of outside pressures to shape the way it moves through the world. Hip Hop can be overtly sexual, dangerous, crass, and insulting, showing us both the glamour and deep underbelly of our society. Hip Hop does all this with out concern of how it looks to outsiders, but its only concern is expressing what is true to itself.

However, we cannot so easily cast aside the narratives that continually shape Hip Hop's voice. Themes of misogyny, materialism, old tropes of masculinity, and needs of corporate interests are all still pumped through the viens of commercial Hip Hop in ways that make me doubt that black folks have reached the cultural tipping point and critical mass Ellis claims. All these themes hang their hat on the coat rack of race and racism, which I believe cannot so easily be ignored. 

As a cultural mulattos, Ellis and his peers can identify and move through the spaces in which racism lurks or choose to ignore it all together. They apparently have access and power, but for the majority of black Americans, the antithesis of Ellis' New Black Aesthetic, who did not receive college educations or have a middle class upbringing, and who are unable to move through both black and white worlds...what are they to do? How do the benefits of the New Black Aesthetic reach southwest Philadelphia, crumbling Detroit, or rural black America for that matter? This question needs to be answered or we risk again loosing the same folks the pioneers of the movement that reached its pinnacle in the 50s and 60s apparently left behind as well.