by Richard Iton. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. 432pp. Hardcover $29.95/£15.99. ISBN: 9780195178463.
Reviewed by Julie Novkov, University at Albany, SUNY. E-mail: jnovkov [at] albany.edu.
Richard Iton’s IN SEARCH OF THE BLACK FANTASTIC provides a richly theorized analysis of how black politics plays out in the field of popular culture. Iton argues that in order to understand black politics in the post civil rights era, conventional state- and organization-based conceptions of politics and political action must stretch to incorporate fluid cultural overlays and engagements with politics. Yet his argument takes seriously the risks of simply reading culture as politics, which would devalue direct political action and rob popular culture of its primary significance. Rather, he takes seriously the history of African American popular culture as a means of engaging politics, noting that popular culture has provided accessible space for African American politics throughout the pre-civil rights and civil rights eras, when African Americans were marginalized or violently excluded from formal political spaces and prevented from engaging in regularized political discourse. Iton does not want to eliminate lines between politics and popular culture, between political argumentation and aesthetics, or between America and the diaspora, but he intentionally blurs these lines with the aim of gaining theoretical purchase from examining the tensions, contrasts, and crossovers.
Iton focuses on popular culture rather than formal politics because he wants to situate black popular culture as an ambiguous leading edge not only for black politics, but for American politics. He defines the black fantastic (in opposition to the groundedness of conventional political performance) as “the minor-key sensibilities generated from the experiences of the underground, the vagabond, and those constituencies marked as deviant – notions of being that are inevitably aligned within, in conversation with, against, and articulated beyond the boundaries of the modern” (p.16). Iton agrees that blacks’ fusion of cultural and political space as a contemporary practice with deep historical roots is exceptional, but the exceptionalism he identifies is generative. Thus, the fantastic, in his analysis, “would entail unsettling . . . governmentalities and the conventional notions of the political, the public sphere, and civil society that depend on the exclusion of blacks and other nonwhites from meaningful participation and their ongoing reconstitution as raw material for the naturalization of modern arrangements” (p.17). A real strength of the book is Iton’s careful gauging of how effective this unsettling process is in different contexts and different historical moments. [*1083]
The first few substantive chapters recount the history of the performance of black politics in the cultural sphere before and during the civil rights era. Iton situates himself at the outset against a black intellectual tradition exemplified by Ralph Ellison and finding contemporary expression through Adolph Reed, Jr. that advocates for normalizing and mainstreaming black politics and practices. Iton argues that black political leadership during the Cold War, civil rights years, and immediate post-civil rights period came from civil rights organizations and cultural actors. Thus any consideration of black political thought and action that omits the political engagements of cultural figures is incomplete. His analysis of Paul Robeson illuminates his approach. In addition to discussing the familiar story of Robeson’s own struggles to articulate a radical vision of black politics in contrast to the liberal, anti-Communist standpoint of the NAACP, Iton configures Robeson as a public symbol of resistance who invited or demanded political responses from black cultural and movement elites. Iton sets up Robeson’s concrete political challenges against the State Department’s uses of black jazz stars like Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington, as international goodwill ambassadors, but he also details Robeson’s complex political engagements with Sidney Poitier and more straightforward mentorship of Ossie Davis, Lorraine Hansberry, Ruby Dee, and Harry Belafonte. This analysis enables Iton to show in detail the shift that restructured black progressive and protest politics from uneasy and uncertain engagement with communism to alliance with the southern, church-led civil rights movement (pp.59-61).
In discussing the transition to the post-civil rights era, Iton argues against simply following black politics into its new occupation of formal political spaces, considering instead (for instance) Amiri Baraka’s artistic reconstitution of black radical politics as masculinized black nationhood. Iton simultaneously valorizes Baraka’s reconstructions of black interiority while acknowledging the damaging limitations inherent in the movement’s anxieties around homosexuality and black feminism. While black feminist novelists would soon mount direct challenges to the damaging elements of masculinity, Iton claims that gendered negotiations within both the cultural and political spheres depended upon most black women’s solidarity with black men and their “willingness to defer, at least temporarily, a real engagement with issues of gender equality” (p.100). The 1970s, however, continued the tradition of black cultural voices’ speaking in political registers and weaving in, through, and out of the newly opened spaces of institutional black politics inhabited by a growing class of more conventional black political actors.
Iton argues that the emergence of robust conventional black electoral politics in the post-civil rights era contributed to the assimilation of formal black politics into the quadrennial rhythms of national electoral cycles. He notes the contrast with a more swiftly changing cultural aesthetic, produced through the rapid, irregular, and politically active and reactive demands of entertainment. As the production and consumption of popular culture accelerated in the late 20th century, black popular culture moved into a new relationship of celebration with the market, “a unique [*1084] development in the broader history of the efforts to negotiate the object/subject divide that has underscored black politics since the Middle Passage” (p.125). While black politicians struggled to negotiate their own dilemmas of assimilation and representation, black popular culture provided space for reconfiguring identity, solidarity, and resistance.
In discussing rap and hip hop in the 1990s, Iton emphasizes how these genres unsettled boundaries between middle class and lower class and between a street life infused with criminality and a high life infused with luxury. This process of unsettling, best represented in the persona of Sean Combs, played out in different ways in the humor of Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock. This unsettling and explicit consideration specifically addressed welfare reform in the 1990s; Iton shows how black popular culture struggled with and multiply represented the increasing gulf between a “respectable” and “striving” black middle class and an “irresponsible” and “unstable” black lower class. This divide was politically unspeakable for conventional black political actors, but popular culture offered a forum for considering, questioning, challenging, or reinforcing it (pp.170-191). The voices of black women, including Tracy Chapman, Julie Dash, and Mary Blige, contributed powerfully. Nonetheless, Iton critically acknowledges black cultural echoes of a broader rejection of poor black women as full members of the polity, citing a rash of films celebrating the black middle class while rendering poverty invisible and noting several black business leaders’ support for conservative economic policies like eliminating the estate tax (pp.182-188).
One of the most innovative elements of the book is Iton’s analysis of black popular culture through the lens of diaspora. Rather than resting his analysis on the familiar framework of configuring the diaspora as a dialectic between desiring and disowning “Africa” in a world complicated by post-coloniality, Iton configures the black diaspora as a complex strategy of resistance. Engaging in a trans- or multinational black popular culture is thus to “resist hierarchy, hegemony, and administration, suggest[ing] a different orientation toward this category of politics” (p.200). Drawing from but transforming Paul Gilroy’s (2000) engagement with biopolitics, Iton demonstrates that the fundamentally diasporic nature of black popular culture opens a uniquely flexible space for a fluid interplay of post-colonial and possibly ultimately post-national political discourse. While Iton recognizes the historical roots of a largely American-driven cultural diaspora dating from Garvey and spreading through different ideological agendas in the Cold War era, he traces how this outpouring transformed into engagement through the rise of reggae as an overtly political art form rooted in black power aesthetics (p.238). By the late 1970s, Bob Marley had a substantial audience in Great Britain. The popularity of reggae rested in part on the presence of West Indian immigrants in London, but Iton reminds the reader that racial exiles Haile Selassie, Marcus Garvey, and Claudia Jones, among others, had found homes in London earlier (p.240). Caribbean migration to the United States, Canada, and Great Britain produced core consuming audiences, but Iton notes the initial difficulty that reggae artists encountered in developing [*1085] broader audiences among African Americans (p.251). American hip hop, however, ultimately began to incorporate Caribbean sounds and to transform global black aesthetics (p.254).
While Iton sees transformative potential in the increasingly complex engagements and integrations that are producing a diasporic culture, he is, as always, careful not to flinch from the more troubling implications. He notes the rise of the motif of the sexualized and foreign Caribbean man as an object of middle class, black female American consumption (p.264). He also highlights the longer standing problem of Africa’s feminization and presentation as an object of loving desire and conquest (pp.264-65). Playful resignifications, like Lauryn Hill’s reworking of Bob Marley’s masculinity or Queen Latifah’s challenges to hypermasculinity, only go so far against a conservative tide, and the issue of homosexuality remains even more vexed.
Iton is careful throughout to distinguish between transgressive resistance to mainstream cultural practices and the cultural expression of progressive politics, and does not read all popular culture as political expression. He seriously considers Adolph Reed’s (1999) objections to focusing on the political content of popular culture to the exclusion of the analysis of formal politics. His response is that cultural shifts and recent technological changes have promoted polyvocal expressions that speak to multiple audiences in multiple registers. This multiplicity enabled the development of a new engagement between black interiority and the production of black solidarity. In Iton’s analysis, black solidarity can be articulated strategically to promote a cosmopolitan, fluid, generative standpoint from which to disrupt longstanding negative configurations of race, sexuality, gender, class, and nationality. This generative response stands in contrast to a thinner and more controlled black solidarity that presents the black community as bounded and containable through discourses of respectability (p.149).
He closes the book with a plea for a richer and more ambiguous notion of political space. Enlarging what we consider as political space will not resolve the dilemmas of black politics in the post-civil rights era, but Iton claims that limiting the realm of the political closes off any opportunity for the development of fluid forms of resistance and political creativity. He decries the growing separation between black politics and popular culture both as performed in the world and as they are analyzed. Bringing them together allows popular culture to trouble black politics in productive ways, and perhaps, one should extrapolate, encourages a deeper infusion of political sensibility into popular culture.
IN SEARCH OF THE BLACK FANTASTIC spans a remarkable swath of black popular culture and history, and integrates these elements highly effectively. Iton masterfully contexualizes the contemporary dilemmas of popular culture and black politics and shows convincingly how these dilemmas arose through the political transformations of the civil rights era. The book is demanding – Iton is a clear writer, but he maintains the theoretical sophistication throughout, and readers unfamiliar with [*1086] contemporary theories concerning politics and aesthetics and politics and culture may find themselves struggling at some points. Some who pick up this book will wish that Iton had interspersed the analysis with more direct bridging to conventional politics, but this criticism misses the point of Iton’s project, which is to trace politics through popular culture. Readers expecting significant analysis of black popular culture figures who have crossed over to become American cultural icons, like Will Smith and Oprah Winfrey, will also be disappointed. But as Iton argues implicitly, such figures have followed and poorly echoed the richer and more productive ambiguities within specifically black popular culture.
The book’s argument is particularly well timed at a moment when the analysis of black politics will likely take a strong turn toward conventional politics as Barack Obama ascends to the presidency. Through Iton’s analysis, however, we can see how Obama’s election raises a serious dilemma for the diasporic space Iton highlights at the end of the book. Whither black popular culture now? Even with a black president of the United States, Iton would likely caution against ceding the political to the professional politicians, either as a primary matter or in choosing subjects to study as political actors. Indeed, in an era of interdependent political and economic national systems, diasporic spaces may turn out to be uniquely productive sites for addressing problems that are too big to solve through conventional political means.
Gilroy, Paul. 2000. AGAINST RACE: IMAGINING POLITICAL CULTURE BEYOND THE COLOR LINE. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Reed, Jr., Adolph. 1999. STIRRINGS IN THE JUG: BLACK POLITICS IN THE POST-SEGREGATION ERA. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
© Copyright 2008 by the author, Julie Novkov.