Schmidt, Christian. Postblack Aesthetics: The Freedom to be Black in Contemporary African American Fiction. Universitätsverlag Winter, 2017 (Volume 256 of American Studies). ISBN 9783825374914. €45 (Hardback). 303pp.
The freedom of black writers not to have to discuss and depict blackness as the only story to tell and celebrate: this is the trope permeating Christian Schmidt’s Postblack Aesthetics: The Freedom to Be Black in Contemporary African American Fiction. Although systemic racism, voter suppression, and mass incarceration plague black communities across the United States, a generation of innovative contemporary writers has been exercising their freedom “not to react to race in everything they do,” the freedom to be (only) black as well as to not have to be black, to be black and many other things.
Schmidt’s monograph compiles and analyzes a preliminary canon of contemporary novels whose authors espouse postblack aesthetics. These authors reject the notion that African American writers are mere social reporters, who react to racial mistreatment and speak for an entire race. Importantly, the practitioners of postblack aesthetics are, simultaneously, aware that blackness remains a marker of difference and that race still exerts influence over social relations and institutions in the United States, as the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer of 2020 show. Yet, postblack aesthetics does not constitute protest art for political purposes. Instead, postblack authors consciously engage with and renegotiate existing notions of blackness to investigate the malleability of racial identity and to turn the process of the social construction of racial identities and difference into their artistic playground. Thus, in a postmodern fashion, postblack texts employ humor against both milestones of African American cultural, political, or literary history as well as against the white oppressors. They overflow with satire and self-reflexivity, focus on individual perspectives, and refuse to create a new collective identity.
The monograph provides a compelling history of the emergence of postblack aesthetics as a result of the societal changes brought about by the civil-rights and affirmative-action legislation passed in the 1960s and 70s. Schmidt argues that as black culture was being increasingly recognized and African American literature was gaining canonical status, aesthetic options for black writers narrowed down – recognition and canonization fossilized what it considered to be the essential qualities of African American literature, branding it as documentary and protest literature in a way that tended to assume a consistent collective voice. Thus, postblack writers paradoxically started their careers amidst a dramatic rise in individuation and a variety of available blacknesses, as well as the omnipresent threat of always being reduced to one’s blackness. This is why, in Schmidt’s analysis, their texts tap into various ways to “productively negotiate the discrepancy between an open playing field of freestyles with the constant reinscription of strict regulations of how one continues to be expected to play one’s blackness” (23).
Schmidt’s analysis repeatedly highlights the constant tension, re-writing, and power struggle between individuation and essentialism, which postblack aesthetics and literature have to deal with. On the one hand, the authors discussed here do not refuse to deal with race, or claim that race is no longer an issue. However, they assert that not everything a black author does should respond to race. If anything, Schmidt convincingly argues, postblack texts provide an individual(istic) perspective and express discomfort about being collectively identified as black by crafting and presenting multiple, complex blacknesses, and by highlighting the produced texts and their aesthetics, rather than the producers’ racial identities. For, in postblack aesthetics, black exists as both an artistic option and an omnipresent reality.
In the first two chapters, Schmidt unveils a robust arsenal of methodological tools to elucidate on his actor- and agency-oriented theory and to dissect the essential tenets of postblack aesthetics as well as its dilemma of de-essentializing race, while re-inscribing its importance in the process. This is what separates Schmidt’s monograph from other treatments of the same topic, such as Houston A. Baker Jr.’s The Trouble with Post-Blackness (2015) or Mary Mann’s Post-Blackness in the Arts (2015): the sheer variety of theoretical concepts and vocabulary deployed to dig down to the core of what constitutes postblack aesthetics. Schmidt turns, for example, to Anthony Kwame Appiah’s concept of scripts to explore how postblack authors question and deconstruct the master script of blackness, revealing that blackness is anything but uniform. Schmidt also heavily relies on the concept of “transdifference,” originated by Helmbrecht Breinig, Jürgen Gebhardt, and Klaus Loesch at the University of Erlangen in 2002, to shed light on how postblack aesthetics questions notions of cultural ownership and constantly emphasizes the hybrid mixture of intersecting and overlapping influences that form the palimpsest – the layering – of culture. Through transdifference, Schmidt analyzes how postblack texts capture, if fleetingly, all that is left out of view in binary constructions of difference; the moments where a wide range of identities emerges, with blackness remaining one of them. Postblack artists, in Schmidt’s view, engage with as many layers of this palimpsest of blackness as possible and it is in this way that postblack aesthetics strengthen the individual artist in the face of an overpowering master narrative of blackness and its expectations. Postblackness thus entails an individual’s negotiation through racial identities never fully independent yet never entirely defined by them either.
The introductory chapters also dive into a detailed analysis of the ethics of postblack aesthetics, specifically its non-essentialist black solidarity, wherein characters are connected with blackness through what philosopher Tommie Shelby has described as “thin blackness” (239) – i.e. through the way they fit a phenotypical profile – rather than “thick blackness,” a black collective identity. Within this solidarity, protagonists are not bound to a collective identity, they do not represent or speak for their community as a whole, yet, simultaneously, they remain vulnerable to being mistreated based on the color of their skin. Schmidt explains here that postblack art performs ethical individuation with its focus on race as a social category, presenting all that is excluded and under-analyzed. As its epistemological starting point, it turns toward the individual rather than the group: the individual is enmeshed in a range of identities and has to negotiate lines of differences on an individual basis by questioning traditional representations of social, sexual, and cultural identity and challenging preconceived notions. Moreover, argues Schmidt convincingly, it is only as individuals that we can perceive the other as more than just a representative of a particular group – as a member of humanity. In its push against ostensibly authentic narratives, postblackness – in Schmidt’s elaborate conception of it – presents a utopian ethical appeal, and postblack texts should be read as deep interrogations into what makes us human.
Throughout the monograph, Schmidt also highlights the humorous and satirical means by which postblack art focuses on the reality of racial difference as well as on all that which cannot be grasped in terms of black difference. Since postblack art presents black lives despite claiming that such representation is impossible – due to the discrepancy in life circumstances, cultural preferences, and economic situations among African Americans – it also engages heavily in self-reflection and metafictional literary techniques. Postblack texts, according to Schmidt’s own professed postmodern predisposition, refuse to believe that anything can be represented authentically, whether race or anything else. Postblackness is not a simple dismissal of blackness, nor does it stand in direct temporal succession to it. Rather, it seems to invoke a complex relationship to (existing narratives of) blackness, since any formulation of postblackness obviously redirects attention to blackness as an important demarcation of difference.
In the third chapter, Schmidt turns to Charles Johnson’s “China,” Oxherding Tale, and “Executive Decision” to trace how postblack authors re-imagine the traditional forms and tropes of African American literature. In painstaking detail, Schmidt explores Johnson’s “transdifferent” moments, where the characters’ and readers’ perception may be liberated, and wherein race may be transcended. For example, although Oxherding Tale looks like a slave narrative, Schmidt argues that Johnson actually re-forms the genre’s traditional textual structure and protagonists’ characterization in a refusal to create characters that stand for a larger collectivity or that represent the African American experience. Instead, Johnson seeks to create complex fictional individuals, who achieve a certain type of enlightenment or liberation despite the reality and context of race. Johnson, in Schmidt’s reading, thus acknowledges the existence and dominance of a singular black American narrative, but also actively chips away at it as he phenomenologically brackets preconceived notions of racial identity and shows that raced identities are not the only possible way in which to see reality. He makes room for different stories of and about blackness.
Schmidt also analyzes two short metafictional interludes in Oxherding Tale – created by the novel’s protagonist, these interludes self-reflexively point out the text’s lack of mimetic representation and their fictionality. It is through them that the protagonist acknowledges that he is only crafting his own story, which destabilizes the representative nature of slave narratives, Schmidt states. The protagonist’s voice is therefore liberated into a freedom much more broadly conceived than in traditional slave narratives geared towards white audiences and published by white abolitionists. Finally, in his analysis of “Executive Decision,” Schmidt focuses on the tension between the affirmative-action context of the short story and its depiction of an individual’s responsibility, providing a surprisingly enlightening, deeply philosophical, and ethical reading of Johnson’s moments of liberation of perception.
In the fourth chapter, Schmidt utilizes Appiah’s concept of scripts and personal ethics to zero in on those narrative techniques in Trey Ellis’s Platitudes (1988) and Percival Everett’s Erasure (2001) which highlight the novels’ textuality and gesture towards the authors’ problematization of the notion of black authorship, authenticity in black literature, and their refusal to represent the world mimetically. For example, Ellis’s use of two opposing scripts of blackness in Platitudes – where two authors exchange alternative notes on a novel – “displaces any notion of authenticity” as the text “humorously engages with the available scripts of textual blackness, which it complicates and ultimately undermines,” indicating the impossibility of authentic representation (148). In providing merely a fictional world made up of words, letters, and images, Schmidt skillfully highlights how Ellis’s novel exercises the freedom of not having to provide an answer to the question of race at all.
Throughout the fourth chapter, Schmidt also repeatedly shows how Platitudes and Erasure refuse to represent the outside world and point their satire explicitly at the idea of literary representation of blackness. By paying close attention to the use of the mise en abyme – the internal reduplication of a literary work or part of a work – in Erasure, Schmidt shows how Everett thematizes the relationship between subject and object of representation: the novel plays with the reader’s expectation of visual representations of race, placing a black face on the cover while engaging the trope of invisibility through allusions to Richard Wright’s Native Son and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. However, the most insightful contribution of this chapter lies in Schmidt’s exploration of the ways in which the novel thematizes and targets both the process of marketing blackness as a product and the very aesthetics of postblack art – the tension between the invisibility of art when it is not labeled as racial, and therefore the very marketability and commodification of blackness.
In the fifth chapter, Schmidt turns attention to two novels revolving around the fight for civil rights in the 1960s and the 1990s, respectively. Schmidt here reads Paul Beatty’s White Boy Shuffle and Charles Johnson’s Dreamer as sophisticated parodies of the protest novel, which formulate an ethical position of pragmatic solidarity based on thin blackness, on de-essentialized black identity. Schmidt traces how the novels “interrogate the ways in which blacks come to be perceived and treated as a people and look for ways for their characters to be politically active without re-inscribing static understandings of black collective identity” (172). The willingness to work together toward the shared goal of eradicating antiblack sentiment and social inequality, the focus on the project of antiblack racism instead of on race-based identity, is central to Beatty’s novel, with characters free to invest their shared black identity with whatever import they deem fitting – including the freedom not to care about their blackness at all. Hence, postblackness as an allegiance to a category – a community, a race – is shown to be a matter of individual choice, according to Schmidt. Johnson’s Dreamer then mirrors this notion of a fluid solidarity, shared responsibility for each other – but not for the collective a priori – and invokes the idea of moving slowly forward rather than fossilizing and fetishizing the image of a black leader.
Schmidt’s fascination with the postblack complexity of Paul Beatty’s texts is also evident in the final chapter, which turns to Beatty’s Slumberland and Adam Mansbach’s Angry Black White Boy – a text by a white author. The chapter explores what a novel like Mansbach’s, about a young white man who may be treated like an (honorary) black person by everyone and thus draw white hatred, can contribute to a re-thinking of black identity. Throughout the chapter, Schmidt skillfully engages Paul Gilroy’s idea of cosmopolitan conviviality to once more drive home his thesis of how postblack writers, much like Gilroy, refuse to be viewed exclusively through the existing optics of race – but who also, unlike Gilroy, refuse to leave the existence and real consequences of such racial optics. In his analysis of Slumberland, Schmidt then re-invokes the concept of the palimpsest as the novel’s protagonist attempts to mix sounds to create a new and unclassifiable artistic expression; the novel itself remixes and creates cover versions of traditions to submerge blackness and highlight the palimpsest of identity and influences that blackness can be. Schmidt reads the text as a refusal of the traditional employment of the jazz trope in African American literature. In its stead, the novel plays up the invisibility of sound, moving from a visual mode of differentiation between bodies and borders to an aural regime (as Schmidt explains in his most elaborate analysis), which underscores the fluidity of demarcations. It engages in a cosmopolitan aesthetics of mixing – and yet, through the main character’s frantic quest for his music to stop being identified as traditionally black, the novel also highlights the reinscription of race, its omnipresence as difference.
In the Epilogue, Schmidt finally – albeit much too briefly – clarifies the relationship between postblack literary texts and the African American tradition. He claims that postblack texts both signify on this tradition and complicate their own connections to it: they contribute new voices to the ongoing debate about race in the United States, and also go beyond notions of merely private freedom from oppression by presenting challenging imaginations of new forms of (artistic) freedom.
Overall, although Postblack Aesthetics: The Freedom to Be Black in Contemporary African American Fiction lacks an index section and devotes little space to elaborating the problematic gender politics of postblack aesthetics, it is a monograph of much complexity and possesses a detailed analytical framework. It represents a timely and revealing contribution to the process of understanding the sheer and playful variety African American fiction has to offer despite of – as well as precisely because of – the ongoing struggle against racism in the United States.
Breinig, Helmbrecht, Jürgen Gebhardt, and Klaus Lösch, eds. Multiculturalism in Contemporary Societies: Perspectives on Difference and Transdifference. Erlangen: Univ.-Bibliothek, 2002.
Shelby, Tommie. “Foundations of Black Solidarity: Collective Identity or Common Oppression?” Ethics 112.2
(2002), pp. 231-266.