In Search of the Black Fantastic: Politics and Popular Culture in the Post-Civil Rights Era. By Richard Iton. New York: Oxford UP, June 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-19-517846-3, $29.95. 416 pages. Review by Debbie Clare Olson, Oklahoma State University
from SJC post 2 (10/13/08)
Richard Iton traces the complex connections between black popular culture, black political landscapes, the Diaspora, and black identity within the context of socially entrenched racism and the pursuit of the American ideal. He examines the question of a post-civil rights modernity and the “progressive assumptions and hierarchical designs” (14) within its relation to blackness, popular culture, and politics. The concept of the fantastic, for Iton, lives in the “joints” of the “politics/popular culture matrix” (17) and functions to disturb dominant power structures and traditional thinking within a society whose notions of modernity are determined by the exclusion of non-whites from any meaningful participation in both the public sphere and the political. Iton argues that the anxiety about African American exceptionalism framed the actual domains of post-civil rights political activity and cultural expression, which are united in a multitude of intricate ways (13). For Iton, the desire to assimilate into mainstream spaces entails “accepting alienation and subordination as the price of the ticket” (13).
The book begins with the Red Scare era (1945-1965) within black popular culture and the efforts to form a black identity that paralleled the “borders and ambitions of the modern American project” (28). Iton offers an in-depth look at the negotiations of Adam Clayton Powell, Paul Robeson, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, and many others, with the fear of being blacklisted or deemed a “red” during a time of heavy American propaganda intended to persuade an overseas audience that race relations in the US were harmonious and affable. In response to questions of contradiction between the US fight for democracy and its Jim Crow practices, the US government took advantage of the popularity of Jazz to export a black image that would quell any ideas of American domestic divisiveness. For the US, the Jazz ambassadors, including Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong, played an important role in shaping foreign opinions about US race relations, which in turn bolstered the US political image abroad. Iton argues that this government-controlled exportation of Jazz served to create a black identity that charmed non-domestic audiences yet did not follow the radical “diasporic paths” set out by Paul Robeson, Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, and others. Iton draws important cultural connections between Franz Fanon, the overseas Jazz tours, Aime Cesaire, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and other iconic black artisans, extending into the Cold War era and beyond to shape the current black political landscape.
The Cold War era, Iton argues, marked a shift in cultural pressures to separate formal politics from popular culture and creative expression. He examines black popular support for artists during the Red Scare and how that support broke along class lines. Support for Paul Robeson, as for W.E.B. du Bois, for instance, was heaviest among the working class while the black middle class were reluctant to oppose any government attempts at censorship. Such breaks in class lines of support for those who extended their artistic space into the political space continued throughout the Cold War era. Examples of such resistance include Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier, who were active in opposing government attempts at censorship while fighting for more dignified roles for black actors.
The notion of the political becomes central to the spaces within which, Iton argues, the black identity operates. From the Civil Rights movement, Pan Africanism, the Harlem Renaissance to Reggae, Hip Hop, and Rap, what defines the “political” is important to black mobilization in light of the dominant cultural conception of a politics-of-exclusion based on the subaltern spaces whites perceive as inhabited by blacks. For instance, Iton calls out Hip Hop’s reference to poor black communities as “fabulous,” as such references in popular culture tend to render the economically disadvantaged “invisible” (170). For Iton, key to the struggle for black political inclusion are the intersections between black aesthetics, identities, and the black public sphere to generate a political landscape that challenges and destabilizes the dominant hegemonic notion of politics. But according to Iton, this challenge, instead of bringing autonomy to the black political sphere, makes “hegemonic” the notion of a politics that rejects cultural spaces and, in opposition, works to continue and reinforce colonial and hierarchical norms within the “constructions and expressions of contemporary black politics.” Such cultural expression merely appear as resistance but rather function to reinforce attitudes of black difference that work to continue the politics of exclusion. Iton believes that the cultural and political “silence” on coloniality is a result of its internalization in order to achieve a “modernity” that is sustainable both inside and outside the borders of blackness (287).
Though Iton provides a unique and wide-sweeping probe into the historical and social complexities of black cultural/political matrices, much of the scope of his analysis is lost to an overabundance of unnecessarily dense language. So much so, that the chapters rather lack meaningful connections between them, thus impeding any sense of a chronological trajectory, and blinding his historical vision within a fog of academese. Jargon aside, his study does flesh out a number of interesting questions about how a cultural identity can be articulated through its aesthetic expressions, yet still be unconsciously enfolded into the dominant political arena contrary to its perceived resistance to that dominance. According to Iton, “blackness and the Fantastic” work both “separately and in tandem” to discombobulate notions of colonialism and the modern, a process that continues to negotiate the stubborn social discords of racism, imperialism, and separate-but-equalness that sit quietly on the shoulder of modernity (287).