Amy Abugo Ongiri. Spectacular Blackness: The Cultural Politics of the Black Power Movement and the Search for a Black Aesthetic.
Commerce, consumption, creativity, and collectivity are central to literary and film scholar Amy Abugo Ongiri's ambitious interdisciplinary study of the urban cultural politics of the Black Power movement in the United States. Wide-ranging in scope, eclectic in approach, and academic in tone, Spectacular Blackness examines tensions between revolutionary art, popular culture, radical politics, and mainstream appeal.
Analysis of Chester Himes's 1965 detective novel Cotton Comes to Harlem and the 1970 release of its film adaptation serve as an introduction to the study. Himes's choice of Harlem as a locale, and his focus on a masculine underworld of violence and vice helped shape, Ongiri argues, "the creation of a postwar African American culture that was profoundly visual, aggressively vernacular, and grounded in urban lower-class cultural and political expression" (7).
In a similar way, Ongiri offers that the 1970 release of Cotton Comes to Harlem signaled a new "craze for the images of spectacularized African American urban violence" (5). As production on the action movie began in 1967, the film--which was written with assistance from both Ossie Davis and LeRoi Jones--is ripe for exploring the attendant transformafon in cultural production as the rallying cry for the African American freedom struggle shifted from "Freedom Now!" to "Black Power!"
It is this charged and pregnant moment, which Ongiri defines as marked both by "the postsegregation call for Black Power and the search to define the contours of a discrete Black aesthetic (7)" and the start of "a wider U. S. interest in production and consumption of popular visual images of African American culture" (8) that animates Spectacular Blackness. Drawing from Himes's contradictory experience as an expatriate writer of detective fiction who briefly returned to the States to make Hollywood films set in Harlem, the book's subsequent chapters examine how cultural workers inspired by Black Power navigated the rapidly increasing hunger for images of "spectacular blackness" in U. S. popular culture.
Chapter one, "'Black Is Beautiful!' Black Power Culture, Visual Culture, and the Black Panther Party," looks at the Party's successful presentation of itself on the national and international stage during the late 1960s as "the vanguard of the revolution," as urban, youthful, defiant, and possessing revolutionary potential, using its "sophisticated understanding of and engagement with mass media and popular culture" (42). This chapter also considers how strategic, sensational, and symbolic imagery created by the Party soon after its founding in 1966 influenced key contemporaneous cultural workers, such as comedian Richard Pryor, as well as the larger cultural imaginary. Mindful of the possibilities and constraints of commodification, Ongiri also explores the paradox of how the Party, though committed to armed revolutionary struggle to stop violence and injustice in the late 1960s, is most remembered now for its "interventions into the realm of symbolic, rather than military, culture" (33).
"Radical Chic: Affiliation, Identification, and the Black Panther Party," the book's next chapter, opens with Tom Wolfe's famous 1970 "Radical Chic" essay that claims to depict a fundraising party for the Panthers at composer Leonard Bernstein's Park Avenue duplex. In his essay, Wolfe's tone is dismissive; he characterizes this gathering of radical black activists and white wealthy supporters as a somewhat pathetic assembly of elite white guilt. After recalling this influential essay, Ongiri unpacks and interrogates Wolfe's implicit claims about the possibilities for cross-racial identification and affiliation. Contrary to Wolfe, she argues that "the Black Panther Party attracted widespread popular support because its visual iconography and discourse of revolution inspired deep identification among audiences with widely divergent aims and interests" (81).
Attentive to current debates about race and identification, and possible links between sexual desire and political action, as well as the historical reality of FBI-inspired chaos and violence within the Party, the author shares the contours of a handful of high-profile relationships among white actors, artists, activists, intellectuals, and the Panthers during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Using these well-publicized accounts, she posits that the Party, through its potent presentational and representational strategies, was successful both in raising "the specter of radical change" and in offering "an opportunity for deep identification with that possibility" for these famous white cultural workers (74). Drawing from memoirs and other recollections, Ongiri also looks at how the Panthers' savvy synthesis of imagery and ideology captured the imagination of young African American urban dwellers during the era.
Chapter three, "'We Waitin' on You': Black Power, Black Intellectuals, and the Search to Define a Black Aesthetic," is focused on formal and contextual analysis of the anthology Black Fire, edited by Larry Neal and LeRoi Jones, and published in 1968. Ongiri argues that the pivotal collection's positioning of "African American cultural expression" as a "unifying continuity" can be best understood within the context of comparatively privileged African American artists and intellectuals attempting to navigate the increasing intra-racial class divisions resulting from the end of legalized segregation and the opening of economic and educational opportunities for those well-positioned to benefit (102).
Of this "postsegregation" context, she writes: "The Black Arts Movement would try to negotiate the economic opportunities and the class rifts such changes would create by posing the question of how the artist and intellectual would be accountable to the masses of African American people and, conversely, how the masses of African American people were to be included in dominant culture" (103). With this understanding of change and division, Ongiri reads the movement's persistent and insistent articulations of a "Black aesthetic," "Black community," and the "Black experience"--exemplified within the pages of Black Fire--as urgent attempts at "preserving and transmitting the notion of cultural collectivity that had developed out of the Civil Rights Movement and was very much under siege by 1968" (109).
Provocatively, the author also claims that the vigorous Black Power/Black Arts-inspired debates on "the relationship between aesthetics, politics, and representation" resulted in a seminal burst of cultural production that "created a vibrant alternative to dominant Western culture that continues to be the primary way through which African American culture and identity are created and understood" (89). Examples of this lineage in contemporary African American cultural work, Ongiri argues, are the centrality of the notion of an "authentic blackness," the privileging of "urban vernacular traditions," and the placement of "social change and identity struggle at the center of an aesthetic agenda" (94).
"'People Get Ready!' Music, Revolutionary Nationalism, and the Black Arts Movement," Ongiri's fourth chapter, engages a central paradox of the Black Arts Movement: while its key figures championed music (especially the genres of jazz and the blues) "as one of the primary forms of African American expression" (131) and as "the poetry of the people" (139), these same figures either awkwardly approached, or noticeably refrained from fully engaging, the concurrent outpouring of popular musical genres (particularly soul, R&B, and funk), and missed opportunities with even the politically inspired music "that directly aligned itself with Black Power cultural politics" (141).
Closely reading LeRoi Jones's 1963 Blues People for insights into this recurrent paradox, Ongiri finds a range of related underlying tensions around issues of cultural populism and popular culture; "vanguardism" and consumption; segregation and desegregation; and revolution and commodification. This wide-ranging chapter ends with a discussion of blaxploitation films that suggests that the dissonance between the 1972 film Super Fly, which celebrates the life of a cocaine dealer while its anti-drug soundtrack powerfully exposes "the central problem of the postsegregation era," reveals the problem behind the central paradox, which is: "how to participate in American consumer culture and not be dirtied by it" (152).
Chapter five "'You Better Watch This Good Shit!' Black Spectatorship, Black Masculinity, and Blaxploitation Film," contrasts the surveillance of young African American men by the Los Angeles Police Department before, during, and after the 1965 uprising in Watts, with the often Hollywood-created blaxploitation films that were produced in the years following this event. Arguing that these black action films represent "the first time that African Americans and their desires and concerns became the conscious focus of mainstream U. S. visual culture," Ongiri explores the constraints on and possibilities for resistance, especially by African American spectators, within this commercial sphere (160). A significant contribution is the author's discussion of the wide range of reactions by African Americans to the 1971 film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song!, especially the film's representation of its quiet hero's "omnipotent, omnipresent African American masculinity" (168). From strident condemnation to pleasurable identification, Ongiri untangles the historical, social, visual, and psychic understandings, investments, and experiences undergirding the era's heated debate.
"Dick Gregory at the Playboy Club," the book's conclusion, returns to the study's key question of how cultural workers navigated concerns of commerce, consumption, creativity, and collectivity "soon after segregation had ended" (189).
In its critical reexamination of the cultural production and politics of the Black Power Movement and its era, Amy Abugo Ongiri's Spectacular Blackness is in conversation with recent books such as Peniel E. Joseph's Waiting 'Til The Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America (Holt, 2006), James Smethurst's The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s (U of North Carolina P, 2005), Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar's Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity (Johns Hopkins UP, 2004), Paula Massood's Black City Cinema: African American Urban Experiences in Film (Temple UP, 2003), Mark Anthony Neal's Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic (Routledge, 2002), Komozi Woodard's A Nation within A Nation: Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Black Power Politics (U of North Carolina P, 1999), Brian Ward's Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness, and Race Relations (U of California P, 1998), and Craig Werner's A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race, and the Soul of America (U of Michigan P, 1998).
Various forms and concepts of "culture" lie within the pages of Spectacular Blackness. "Mainstream," "mass," "popular," "consumer," "vernacular," "folk," "populist," "alternative," "oppositional," and "resistant" culture all make appearances in this book, but their best expression might next be found in a work by the author that explicitly defines and theorizes these key terms. Like "Black Power," these concepts are potent and suggestive, but ordinarily elude comprehension and clarity; Ongiri's training, interests, and inclinations would serve this next project well.
Reviewed by Lisa Gail Collins, Vassar College
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|Author:||Collins, Lisa Gail|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2012|
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