Blackness as a Performance: Afro-Modernism, the Black Arts Movement, and the Post-Soul Aesthetic

This image taken from's article "Is Jazz the New Nigger?" (June, 2008) demonstrates blackness as a performance. Stereotypes and narrow definitions of blackness often control black male identity.

This image taken from’s article “Is Jazz the New Nigger?” (June, 2008) demonstrates how blackness can be a performance. Stereotypes and narrow definitions of blackness often control black male identity, which is seen through literary works of Afro-Modernism, the Black Arts Movement, and the Post-Soul Aesthetic.

Blackness is a fluid and complex identity, yet American society constructs black male identity through stereotypes and narrow definitions of blackness. Black men must navigate this prepackaged identity in a “performance” of blackness, which has evolved through the literary periods of Afro-Modernism, the Black Arts Movement, and the Post-Soul Aesthetic.

During the Afro-Modern period, the performance of blackness was largely an unconscious act, which is perfectly embodied by the protagonist of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Afro-Modernism centers on feelings of dysphoria and displacement brought on by changes in science, technology, and industrialization within society; it is a struggle for identity in the midst of becoming an automaton. On addition to this, the Afro-Modern period must also deal with the historical realities of slavery and racism in the United States.

The protagonist of Invisible Man is naïve and inexperienced with the ways of the world. The novel begins with the protagonist reflecting on his experiences, explaining that he is invisible to others:

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you sometimes see in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me. (Ellison, 3)

The nameless narrator feels helpless because his identity is beyond his control; people never see his true self because they are absorbed in their own perceptions of his blackness. To white characters (and even some black characters) the protagonist is perceived as a caricature of blackness. Without realizing it, the protagonist is participating in a performance of blackness. This performance typically results in the protagonist being exploited for others’ purposes; they use him as a puppet for their own means. He is the object, never the doer, in these various situations throughout the novel.

During the course of the novel, the protagonist is haunted by historically important memorabilia; these items reflect the racist realities for African Americans in the early 20th century:

This early Americana Negro coin bank demonstrates features racist, exaggerated features of African Americans.

This early Americana Negro coin bank demonstrates features racist, exaggerated features of African Americans.

Then near the door I saw something which I’d never noticed there before: the cast-iron figure of a very black, red-lipped and wide-mouthed Negro, whose white eyes stared up at me from the floor, his face an enormous grin, his single large black hand held palm up before his chest. It was a bank, a piece of early Americana, the kind of bank which, if a coin is placed in the hand and a lever pressed upon the back, will raise its arm and flip the coin into the grinning mouth. (Ellison, 319)

This early Americana coin bank is a racist caricature of African Americans. The protagonist of Invisible Man senses the racist nature of the bank and he inadvertently smashes it to pieces. He then tries to get dispose of the bank, but to no avail. He puts the broken pieces in his briefcase and tries to drop them into a trashcan on the street, but the owner of the trashcan forces him to remove the package. Then, he attempts to leave the package in a pile of snow at a stoplight. The protagonist feels immensely relieved until a man catches up with him a few blocks later and tries to return the package to him. The protagonist simply cannot get rid of this thing.

This "Dancing Sambo" doll is found in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man.

This “Dancing Sambo” doll is found in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

This “Dancing Sambo” doll makes an appearance in Invisible Man when the protagonist spots Brother Todd Clifton peddling these dolls on the street. Upon seeing the crowd around Clifton, the protagonist looks at what is being sold and thinks, “I’d seen nothing like it before. A grinning doll of orange-and-black tissue paper with thin flat cardboard disks forming its head and feet and which some mysterious mechanism was causing to move up and down in a loose-jointed, shoulder-shaking, infuriatingly sensuous motion, a dance that was completely detached from the black, mask-like face” (Ellison, 431). The Sambo doll troubles the protagonist; he cannot figure out what makes it dance. Frustrated, he says to the doll:

Go on, entertain me. You entertained the crowd. I turned it around. One face grinned as broadly as the other. It had grinned back at Clifton as it grinned forward at the crowd, and their entertainment had been his death. It still grinned when I played the fool and spat upon it, and it still grinned when Clifton ignored me. Then I saw a fine black thread and pulled it from the frilled paper. There was a loop tied in the end. I slipped it over my finger and stood stretching it taut. And this time it danced. Clifton had been making it dance all the time and the black thread had been invisible (Ellison, 446).

The invisible black thread is indicative of the white characters of Invisible Man, particularly the Brotherhood who have used the protagonist for their own purposes. They have been controlling him and making him perform without his knowledge. The protagonist eventually realizes both his invisibility and how the Brotherhood exploited him: “I could see it now, see it clearly and in growing magnitude… The committee had planned it. And I had helped, had been a tool. A tool just at the very moment I had thought myself free” (Ellison, 553).

The Negro coin bank and “Dancing Sambo” doll are significant for the protagonist’s black identity.  He cannot escape the fact that objects such as these exist in the world and that they will affect his existence as a black man in American society. The protagonist looks up to the white characters of the novel such as Mr. Norton and wants to please these men; he wants to be the ideal black man—polite, respectable, educated, and most importantly, a man who “knows his place” (i.e. his racial inferiority). In reality, the white characters see him as a stereotype—a mindless, groveling entertainer, much like the Negro bank and Sambo doll.

The literary successor of the Afro-Modern period is the Black Arts Movement. The Black Arts Movement was the sister to the Black Power Movement. The BAM valued blackness; it emphasized racial pride. The protagonist Dan Freeman in Sam Greenlee’s The Spook Who Sat by the Door is proud of his blackness, but he still must navigate stereotypes about black individuals. Freeman, unlike Ellison’s protagonist in Invisible Man, is well aware of the stereotypes he’ll encounter; his performance is polished and deliberate.

Below is the trailer of the film adaptation of The Spook Who Sat by the Door. It gives a great sense of the tone of Spook and outlines Freeman’s character well:

To “whitey,” Freeman is the ideal black man—a prime example of success for his people. Freeman thinks, “It was not difficult to conform to the image whites desired, since they did most of the work. They saw in most Negroes exactly what they most wanted to see; one need only impressionistically support the stereotype. Whites were fools” (Greenlee, 32).

A brilliant example of the calculated race relations between Freeman and “Whitey” occurs when Freeman is meeting with the Senator who was responsible for the integration of the CIA. He says to Freeman, “Tell me, Mr. Freeman, do you like working for the agency?” The senator had found that calling Negroes “Mr.” often had a magical effect on the relationship,” to which Freeman replies, “Yes, sir.” Freeman used “sir” with whites as often as possible. He found that it had a magical effect on the relationship” (Greenlee, 45).  This interaction demonstrates how both Freeman and the senator are attempting to manipulate the other through their navigation of stereotypes. If this interaction had been with the senator and the protagonist of Invisible Man, the protagonist would have been flattered to be addressed as “Mr.” Freeman, however, knows better.

The video below features the entire film adaptation of Greenlee’s The Spook Who Sat by the Door:

The scene from 20 minutes and 11 seconds to 21 minutes and 36 seconds shows the CIA’s thoroughness in ensuring that Freeman is a “good” and “safe” black man to have in the agency—a radical of any kind is unacceptable. Freeman though, has a pristine cover and keeps his black nationalist identity to himself. Freeman restrains himself in the presence of whites; a great example of this is his interaction with the senator from 28 minutes and 4 seconds to 28 minutes and 52 seconds. The senator tells Freeman that he is a “credit to his race” and makes insulting statements about black people being natural-born athletes. The senator is quick to comment that black people are still primitive though—“there is a cultural gap.” Freeman responds to all of this with a smile and a “yes, sir,” despite Freeman’s true thoughts on the condescension of this white man.

Freeman then moves back to Chicago to be a social worker. He plans to “reach out” to a local gang, the Cobras. He is really recruiting them as a guerilla army against “whitey.” The scene begins at 34 minutes and 57 seconds to 35 minutes and 57 seconds; Freeman assaults the Cobras and asks them, “Do you really want to mess with whitey? I can show you how.” This Freeman in this scene is in direct contrast with the earlier Freeman in the scene with the Senator. Freeman is performing his model blackness perfectly; whites trust him. Yet his true self emerges in his relationship with the Cobras. Eventually, Freeman trains the Cobras to become trained killers on the streets of Chicago; their skills are highlighted at hour, 31 minutes, and 39 seconds to 1 hour, 32 minutes, and 35 seconds.

The climactic ending of the film at 1 hour, 35 minutes, and 26 seconds shows Officer Dawson’s surprise at Freeman being behind the guerilla warfare. He says to Freeman, “Cool Dan Freeman, the South Side playboy, nothing on your mind except chicks, clothes, good whiskey and sports cars. A beautiful cover, now that I think about it” (Greenlee, 241). Freeman understands how the world operates and he uses it to his advantage; he knows how to play the game.

Following the Black Arts Movement, blackness as a performance becomes even more convoluted and complicated with the Post-Soul Aesthetic. While Afro-Modernism and the Black Arts Movement focus on black male characters who, for the most part, emulate white masculinity in hopes of being accepted by American society, the Post-Aesthetic, specifically Paul Beatty in The White Boy Shuffle, shows the fluidity of blackness and acknowledges how the performance of blackness has become more complex.

Beatty explores this performance of black masculinity through his characterization of Nicholas Scoby. Scoby embodies the ideal black masculinity: he is a basketball star. After playing a few games with Scoby, Beatty’s protagonist, Gunnar, explains why Scoby is held in high regard on the court: “He never missed. I mean never” (95). Scoby’s perfection of black masculinity is illustrated through his perfection on the basketball court–a stereotypical domain for black males. This perfection, however, becomes burdensome to Scoby and it begins to consume him:

“It’s not fair. I wasn’t born to make them happy. What I look like, motherfucking Charlie Chaplin?” Scoby’s eyes reddened and he started to sniffle. I could see that he was cracking under the pressure. Watching his hands shake, I realized that sometimes the worst thing a nigger can do is perform well. Because then there is no turning back… American society reels you back into the fold. “Tote that barge, shoot that basketball, lift that bale, nigger ain’t you ever heard of Dred Scott?” (Beatty 119)

When his fame becomes too much for him, Scoby rejects basketball and seeks other outlets for his identity. He listens to jazz music constantly and is particularly drawn to the music of Sarah Vaughan:

Scoby’s interest in jazz is about destroying stereotypical ideas about his masculinity. Vaughan’s music is sensually feminine, emotional, and contemplative–everything that stereotypical black masculinity is not. When Gunnar asks why Sarah Vaughan is so special, Scoby says, “Sarah’s not one those tragic niggers white folks like so much. Sarah’s a nigger’s nigger, she be black coffee. Not no mocha peppermint kissy-kissy butter rum do-you-have-any-heroin caffé latté” (Beatty, 194). To Scoby, Sarah Vaughan is the real deal; she is not pretending to be anything or anybody else. Her identity is pure because it is authentic and this is what Scoby desires because he feels trapped within the stereotypes of black masculinity.

Coupled with his fanaticism for Vaughan is his devotion to Japanese love-suicide plays, specifically The Love Suicides at Sonezaki by Chikamatsu Monzaemon: 

Scoby is drawn to the freedom that death gives. Japanese love-suicide plays indict society for the act of suicide, not the individuals committing the act, which is the opposite of Western thought on suicide. Because of this, Scoby’s suicide should be read in the same way. As Gunnar reads the love-suicide play to Scoby, he observes, “Whenever the sake dealer and the loyal courtesan cross the bridge and start looking for a place to kill themselves, Nicholas weeps with the star-crossed lovers. “I know what it feels like to live in a world where you can’t live your dreams. I’d rather die too. Why won’t they leave us alone? They fuck up your dream. They fuck up your dream” (Beatty 194).  American society is too constrictive about identity and forces black men into prepackaged identities and Scoby hates this. For Scoby, death is the only way to escape these stereotypes.

“I’m beginning to see the sheer casual genius of Chikamatsu writing for the puppet theater. If I blur my eyes I can see the black strings attached to my joints and stretching up to the skies… Nicholas sees the strings, but he spends all his time looking for a pair of scissors. Every now and then the puppet-master hands him a pair of wooden scissors—Sarah Vaughan, an open jump shot—and Scoby thinks he’s free, thinks he’s clipped his strings. The slack string is just a slack string” (Beatty, 194).

Blackness is a performance that matters. The progression and evolution of this performance adapts and changes with each new literary period: the performance found in Afro-Modern texts demonstrates that the performance was, on the whole, unconsciously done. In the Black Arts Movement, blackness is overtly valued, but stereotypes are still present and must be navigated; individuals must outwardly perform a particular kind of blackness to whites. The Post-Soul Aesthetic shows the fluidity of blackness and the detrimental pressure of the performance of black masculinity. Stereotypes and narrow definitions of blackness will continue to impact black men no matter what the time period; the performance will go on.

Works Cited:

Beatty, Paul. The White Boy Shuffle. New York: Picador, 1996. Print.

“Black Americana Dancing Sambo Magic Trick.” Ruby Lane., n. d. Web. 14 May. 2013.<;.

CrazyDeeDee. :Vintage Negro Mechanical Cast Iron Bank.” Etsy., n. d. Web. 14 May. 2013. <;.

Dixon, Ivan, dir. The Spook Who Sat by the Door – Trailer. United Artists, 1973. Film. 14 May 2013. <;.

Dixon, Ivan, dir. The Spook Who Sat by the Door. United Artists, 1973. Film. 14 May 2013. <;.

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Random House, Inc., 1952. Print.

Greenlee, Sam. The Spook Who Sat by the Door. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1969. Print.

“Is Jazz the New Nigger?” BET., 04 Jun 2008. Web. 14 May 2013. <;.

Masumura, Yasuzo, dir. The Love Suicides at Sonezaki. Kimura Productions, 1978. Film. 14 May 2013.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Rodney King: Symbol of Police Brutality and the 1992 Los Angeles Riots

Photo taken during the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

A National Guardsman stands by during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. The graffitied wall in the background shows support for Rodney King.

The Los Angeles riots of 1992 were triggered by the acquittals of police officers in the Rodney King verdict. King became a symbol of police brutality and unified Los Angeles in violent protest of the verdict.

The above image was captured in 1992 at the Los Angeles riots. The image features a White National Guardsman standing alert and armed. The Guardsman is wearing combat boots, a camouflaged uniform, a watch, and protective helmet; he is also carrying an M16 rifle. The man is gazing at something in the distance, presumably the ongoing rioting. The Guardsman is standing on a sidewalk comprised of square concrete slabs. A small patch of overgrown, brownish-green grass is seen directly behind the Guardsman. The sidewalk is dirty and littered with various trash, including a Nike advertisement.

Behind the Guardsman, a discolored beige wall has been spray-painted black with various graffiti. The most prominent graffiti in the photo reads, “This is for Rodney King,” and below that, “We love you my brother.” The remaining graffiti is a conglomeration of scratch-outs and various messages. In the right-hand corner of the image, the graffitied wall reads, “X·Peace,” and “Police 187.” More graffiti can be seen above the National Guardsman’s head on the left side of the wall in the photo, but it is illegible.

This image is filled with historical and cultural significance. The graffiti memorializes the LA community’s support for Rodney King. In March of 1991, King was severely beaten by the LAPD, which was videotaped by a nearby resident. The LA community was all too familiar with police brutality, corruption, and racism within the LAPD. By videotaping the event, Rodney King was transformed into a symbol of police brutality. No longer was this issue an invisible one—there was proof and the racism was visible. Four of the police officers involved were charged with excessive force and assault with a deadly weapon. In April of 1992, a verdict was reached: three of the four police officers were acquitted of all charges. Los Angeles was outraged by the verdict and was not going to tolerate this injustice. Rioting commenced.

The graffiti in the above image indicates the community’s support of Rodney King. The acquittal of the officers made the Black community feel worthless. In Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle, the Rodney King verdict and resulting LA riots are documented and experienced by Beatty’s protagonist, Gunnar Kaufman. Upon hearing the verdict, Gunnar reflects, “Let go? The officers had to be guilty of something… I never felt so worthless in my life… Sitting on the couch watching the announcer gloat, my pacifist Negro chrysalis peeled away, and a glistening anger began to test its wings… I wanted to taste immediate vindication.” (Beatty, 130-132). After the verdict, the community utilized violence as an outlet for the pain and unfairness of the situation; Rodney King unified the Black community and became its rallying point in violent protest.

The above image documents the reality of the LA riots in 1992; “This is for Rodney King / We love you my brother,” highlight the sentiments of the rioting—the community reached its limit for tolerating the inequality of the law and the LAPD, and King was its unifying symbol.


Chan, Bryan. The 1992 Los Angeles riots. 1992. Photograph. Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles. Web. 30 Apr 2013. <

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

The Politics of Beauty: White is Right

This is an advertisement from Lucky Brown Cosmetics (manufactured by Valmor Products, Co. of Chicago) which marketed products such as bleaching creams and face powders to African American women in the early twentieth century.

This is an advertisement from Lucky Brown Cosmetics (manufactured by Valmor Products, Co. of Chicago) which marketed products such as bleaching creams and face powders to African American women in the early twentieth century.

Advertisements for skin whitening creams reveal the Eurocentric view of beauty in American society and the privilege connected with fair skin. One of the aims of the Black Arts Movement (sister to the Black Power Movement) was to eliminate the idea that African American features (skin color, hair, and facial structure) are innately unattractive and valueless.

The above advertisement depicts the face of an African American woman. This woman has sleek, black, chin-length hair, which is smooth and straight with a slight curl at the ends. The woman has shapely eyebrows, a thin nose, full lips, and large eyes. Her makeup serves to accentuate these facial features—red lipstick enhances the fullness of her lips while mascara and eyeliner draw attention to her large, dark eyes.

The woman’s face in the advertisement is split down the middle. On the left side, her complexion is darker—typical of an African American woman. On the right, the woman’s complexion is much lighter and she could almost “pass” for being white. On either side of the divide, the woman’s features are identical; skin color is the only feature that is changed. The text for the advertisement reads, “Lucky Brown Instant Brown Brighten Cream.”

The woman of this Lucky Brown advertisement would be considered attractive by Western standards, which essentially means her features are Eurocentric, and thus, beautiful; White features are the ideal (from a systematic standpoint). Although this woman is not actually White, she is the “right type” of Blackness to be considered attractive; this advertisement says Black women can be beautiful if they’re a particular kind of Black woman (i.e. one who subscribes to Eurocentric beauty ideals of smooth, straight hair, narrow nose, and lighter skin). With bleaching cream, this woman’s skin will still be considered Black but it’s no longer “too dark.”

Advertisements do not exist in a vacuum; they are cultural products and reflect cultural values. The message of this ad is that a fair complexion is equated with beauty and privilege (social mobility, economic success, better marriage prospects, etc.). African American women (individually and collectively) face enormous pressure to fit that beauty mold. Like the politics of hair, skin-bleaching is a practice pressuring minority women to be more White. All in all, these politics of beauty exclude or alter the Black body and culture.

The Black Power Movement, while criticized for much of its ideology and practices, was one of the first cultural movements to overtly value Blackness, which flies directly in the face of this advertisement. Challenging the Eurocentric view of beauty in America challenges the whole hierarchy. Ben Ali Lumumba of John KillensThe Cotillion (1971) understands this and says to his girlfriend Yoruba Lovejoy, “We are never going to be liberated as long as we mimic the white boy’s juju and his cultural symbols” (Killens, 139). Ben Ali recognizes that this conformity is harmful and only functions to instruct minorities: “You don’t need no power. You don’t need no peoplehood. You don’t need to be no nation. You going to be integrated. You going to be just like white folks” (Killens, 140).

The above advertisement for skin-bleaching cream serves to reinforce Eurocentric standards of beauty, while presenting deviant features as ugly; Black Aesthetics, and the notion “Black is Beautiful,” which was an outgrowth of both the Black Arts Movement, was one of the first voices to combat this standard by valuing Blackness.


Lucky Brown Brighten Cream. Web. 21 Mar 2013.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Race and Constructed Identity: Tools of Power

N.W.A., Straight Outta Compton, 1988

This anonymous letter claims that the direction hip hop took in the early 1990s was implemented to promote a violent identity in Black communities. The underlying subject of this constructed identity is echoed in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, in which White institutions work to shape Black identity for their own ends.

The author of the anonymous letter claims to have been an executive with an established corporation of the music industry in the U.S. from the late 80s to early 90s. The author explains that because technology was much more limited than it is today, it was easier to influence the public—people can only be influenced by what that they can access.

According to the letter, a private meeting occurred in Los Angeles in 1991 in which “music business insiders” secretly met “to discuss rap music’s new direction.” The anonymous author was present at this meeting, yet did not realize that “we would be asked to participate in one of the most unethical and destructive business practice I’ve ever seen.”

Basically, these employees were instructed to market music that endorsed criminal behavior in order to keep privately owned prisons filled; the employees’ companies had invested in building these prisons. As the private prisons became publicly traded, these employees could buy shares, and thus, make a profit for themselves. Months after the meeting, rap music began to take a distinctively different direction, which became the genre of gangsta rap, in which urban violence was the central theme.

Despite grammatical errors and complete anonymity, the letter does provide interesting commentary on the music industry and the shift of content in hip hop/rap music of the early 90s—that shift did indeed occur, beginning with groups such as N.W.A, pictured above. The underlying argument of this letter is that the collaboration between the music industry and privately owned prisons used Black people as mere tools and shaped an identity for them so as to sustain power and gain money.

In a manner similar to the anonymous letter, the narrator of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man becomes affiliated with the “Brotherhood,” a political group supposedly working toward equality and social justice. The climax of the novel—the death of Brother Clifton and his subsequent funeral—allow the protagonist to see that the Brotherhood has been using him for their own ends; they have shaped him into a Black symbol for their organization.

The protagonist then realizes his invisibility within society; people see whatever they want to see in him. In the midst of the race riot in Harlem, the narrator reflects, “I could see it now, see it clearly and in growing magnitude… The committee had planned it. And I had helped, had been a tool” (Ellison 553). This echoes the gangsta rap conspiracy theory—that White institutions are to blame for shaping a particular kind of Blackness and for using that constructed identity to gain power and money.

Both the anonymous letter and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man demonstrate how Black individuals can be used as tools in constructing Black identity, which is then used to sustain privilege and power over the race as a whole.


“The Secret Meeting That Changed Rap Music and Destroyed a Generation.” Hip Hop Is Read. Web. 25 Feb 2013.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.